The Mérieux Foundation’s activities have not been spared by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played havoc with schedules and led to the reorganization of some projects so that the most urgent needs could be addressed. This unprecedented health crisis has highlighted the absolute necessity of creating an infrastructure of reliable testing systems in the field, since these are essential requirements for slowing the spread of epidemics. The crisis has also proved the ability of the Foundation’s teams to adapt. Their strong local presence alongside our partners has enabled them to react rapidly to the crisis. The networks of laboratories affiliated to the Foundation in many countries have contributed, sometimes in a highly significant way, to national efforts to diagnose COVID-19.
An exceptional donation granted by bioMérieux shareholders
In 2020, the bioMérieux board of directors decided to cut its dividend payments for the year in favor of public interest campaigns, with €12 million being paid out to the Mérieux Foundation. A total of 30 projects in 19 countries with limited resources were initiated thanks to this support, with the dual objective of fighting COVID-19 and strengthening health systems in general. These actions cover the construction and renovation of facilities, the supply of laboratory equipment, training, knowledge sharing, and research.
The initiatives include:
- The construction of a BSL3 Rodolphe Mérieuxlaboratory dedicated to tuberculosis at the Institut Pasteur in Morocco;
- The expansion of the Charles Mérieux Center for Infectious Disease in Madagascar;
- The purchase of equipment for laboratories in the GABRIEL network;
- Plans to construct a new Bioforce center in the Middle East;
- The allocation of grants to two Bengali students following a training course at the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Boosting local testing capacities
As early as January 2020, the Foundation mobilized its resources to support its partner laboratories with limited testing facilities. In total, almost 90,000 testing kits have been sent out in thirteen countries, accompanied by a program for transferring skills.
The Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratories at the heart of the fight against COVID-19
Designated as national reference laboratories or support laboratories for SARS-CoV-2 testing, several Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratories have played a key role in monitoring the epidemic. In Mali and Madagascar, teams were mobilized as soon as the first warning signs of an epidemic appeared. In Haiti, the Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratory within the GHESKIO centers was quickly requested by the Haitian Ministry of Health to support the National Response Plan and received financial support from the Agence Française de Développement (AFD). Today, it remains one of the most active laboratories in the in the country for the diagnosis of COVID-19. The laboratory in Beirut was commissioned by the Lebanese Ministry of Health to carry out COVID-19 screening alongside the Rafik Hariri University Hospital laboratory. Testing began on 7 March 2020 and the laboratory is now one of five reference facilities appointed by the Ministry of Health.
In Brazil, the Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratory in Rio Branco was the first facility in the state of Acre responsible for COVID-19 testing. The laboratory receives test confirmations for the entire country, as well as tests from border towns in Peru and Bolivia. It now carries out more than 70% of the COVID-19 tests in the state of Acre. In Cambodia, the Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratory has been authorized by the Ministry of Health and the WHO to carry out COVID-19 testing.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratory in Goma has also played a central role in the fight against the Covid-19 epidemic. More than 200 tests are carried out every day as part of surveillance operations for both the local population and travelers (national and international flights).
Supporting health professionals
Despite travel restrictions imposed by the health situation, experts at the Foundation have been able to maintain regular contact with laboratory networks, healthcare managers and partners in the field. A webinar dedicated to COVID-19 diagnosis was organized on 15 September 2020. Led by a professor from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the live webinar had 400 participants.
The Foundation has also adapted a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on COVID-19 diagnosis and translated it into French. This project was managed in collaboration with FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics), the ASLM (African Society for Laboratory Medicine), and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to help improve the skills of laboratory technicians in molecular screening techniques.
Adapting current projects
Several projects already initiated have benefited from additional top-up payments or budget reallocation to respond to the COVID-19 emergency. This adaptability owes a great deal to the mutual trust between the Foundation and its funding partners.
It has meant that the RESAOLAB project (see p.25) in West Africa and the LABOGUI project (see p.23) in Guinea have benefited from additional funding from the Agence Française de Développement (French Development Agency), which was used to set up new molecular biology platforms and to improve biosafety. The APRECIT (see p.34) (Cameroon and Madagascar) and EVAMAD (see p.21) (Madagascar) projects have also benefited from additional support from Expertise France, allowing the Foundation to supply protective equipment, reagents and consumables, and training. In Haiti and Myanmar, issues involving access to molecular diagnosis, improving the resilience of laboratory systems, and decentralizing diagnostic capacities have also led to the initiation of new projects.
Initiating research programs
Several collaborative research programs targeting COVID-19 were launched in 2020, at the forefront of which is a multicentric study aiming to assess the risk of nosocomial transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Initiated in partnership with the Hospices Civils de Lyon, the NOSO-COR study (see p.32) is being carried out in seven countries on four continents (Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Lebanon) and benefits from the financial support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Fondation AnBer supports the element of the study being carried out in the Hospices Civils de Lyon.
Two other COVID-19 research programs were launched in 2020: a study targeting migrants in refugee camps in Bangladesh and Kenya, and a serological study on the immunity status of carers exposed to COVID-19 in Madagascar.
Maintaining support for vulnerable populations
As well as undermining even the most robust health systems, the health crisis has also rapidly aggravated the difficulties in accessing healthcare for the most vulnerable groups of people. The Foundation has therefore reinforced its commitment to these groups by adapting its support during the COVID-19 crisis. This includes:
- In Madagascar, having supported the Akamasoa association and OSCAPE in the production and distribution of washable masks, the Foundation has also donated personal protective equipment, small equipment, and consumables to partner associations, to support vulnerable and often deprived groups of people.
- In Iraq, the beneficiaries of the Shekan health and social center for Yazidi women and children have made 20,000 masks, which were then distributed to hospitals, refugee camps and police stations in the region. The profit-making activities at the center, which are usually devoted to making tahini, were converted to the production of soap, allowing hygiene measures to be respected.
- In Lebanon, the health center in the Beqaa Valley (see p.44), which opened its doors at the beginning of the year, has provided the isolated local population, mainly refugees, with access to testing.
Activities within the GloPID-R network
A global initiative aiming to accelerate research activities in response to the threat of epidemics, the GloPID-R program (Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness, has of course been extremely active since January 2020.
Its achievements include the joint organization, with the WHO, of the Global Research and Innovation Forum in February, the identification of research priorities for COVID-19 in nine areas, and the implementation of a project focusing on low-income countries.