Fleming Fund programme aids COVID-19 response

Nearly one year after the first cases of the coronavirus emerged, the pandemic continues to rattle health systems and economies across the globe. Despite the challenges to the response, support from the Fleming Fund is helping governments respond more quickly and efficiently to the pandemic.

Some country programmes have flexed activities slightly to address an emergent coronavirus need, such as repurposing biosafety equipment or supporting specific training. However, others have highlighted that the programme’s inherent design and funding of activities have contributed to national pandemic responses. Grantees and governments reported renovating and upskilling laboratories, training staff and supporting cross-governmental collaboration were most useful.

In Zambia, laboratory buildings were in disrepair with limited safety or testing equipment prior to the Fleming Fund. However, investments through a Country Grant have supported building renovations and equipment procurement, allowing the country to leverage its public laboratories much more effectively in the pandemic. In Timor-Leste, grantees highlighted that their team provided immediate COVID-19 support to government stakeholders as a result of ongoing relationships and activities from the Fund. Strengthening the National Health Laboratory, provided vital support to the Ministry of Health in their efforts to protect the Timorese people.

In Uganda, the Fleming Fund grantee, Infectious Disease Institute, highlighted that their training on biosafety, sample management and collection was hugely valuable to the response. Project Coordinator, Francis Kakooza said: “People had already been trained to collect swabs and most of the COVID-19 workers and sample collectors came from the microbiology lab. Also, laboratories already had gloves, face shields, SOPs for sample collection and a laboratory workflow. These microbiology staff were integral to the initial phase [of the response].”

Kakooza also says that AMR governance structures, established by the Fund, supported the COVID-19 response. In Uganda, members of the AMR governance platform held roles on the on national coronavirus taskforce. Taskforce members benefitted from the existing experience of building sub-committees and strengthening cross-ministerial collaboration.

Across the globe, a government representative from Bhutan reflected similarly that existing support from the Fleming Fund had improved cross-ministerial collaboration during the pandemic. Dr N.K Thapa, Animal Health Specialist at the National Centre for Animal Health in Bhutan, said: “During the COVID-19 response we shared equipment with human health colleagues - that would not have happened without the existing sharing of resources. Now, compared to the past, we are having Technical Working Group meetings more frequently. We come together and discuss common issues and we are identifying what other resources could be shared.”

Finally, the pandemic has helped spur government investment in laboratory strengthening. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), major gaps in tracking coronavirus through the laboratory referral system were hampering the response. The National Department of Health and WHO’s PNG office highlighted an urgent need to install a laboratory information system (LIMS) capable of overcoming these gaps. The Fleming Fund had identified a suitable system prior to the pandemic to be installed in selected laboratories. However, due to the software’s suitability, the government fast-tracked installation of the LIMS in all public laboratories nationwide.

Although all countries’ health services are strained, the Fleming Fund’s focus on laboratory strengthening, capacity building and surveillance has furthered the pandemic response. In Pakistan, which has a federal government system, regional authorities have become more aware of the need for coordinated national surveillance and are now working to incorporate the private sector in surveillance activities. Government responses in PNG, Pakistan and Bhutan suggest that in future, COVID-19 may act as a catalyst for continued action on AMR and help governments recognise the importance of surveillance.

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