Mon | May 25, 2020

Editorial | Where’s the region’s COVID-19 research?

Published:Monday | March 30, 2020 | 12:24 AM

AS THE world reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions about a vaccine against the virus, or other forms of antiviral treatment, centre primarily on the laboratories of North America and Europe, especially the United States. Except, perhaps, for Cuba, occasionally, the conversation hardly includes the Caribbean.

We understand why. Apart from the historical bias of information flows between the global North and South, the Caribbean, like most postcolonial regions, doesn’t have a significant track record for breakthrough innovation in science and technology.

Indeed, of the several million patents registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office up to 2015, only 62 were from Jamaica. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), combined, had 479, of which 249, or 52 per cent, were from The Bahamas, an amount that likely reflects Nassau’s role as an offshore business centre. The other significant amounts from CARICOM were 81 from Trinidad and Tobago and 40 from Barbados.

Further, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), of the more than three million patent applications filed globally in 2016, 1.3 million were in China – double the number in the United States. They were followed by Japan (318,000), Korea (208,831), and the European Union (159,358). A mere 1.9 per cent were from Latin America and the Caribbean, of which only a handful would have been from this subregion.

Such data might not, however, give a full or nuanced picture of the state of scientific research and innovation in the Caribbean, especially in the area of healthcare. The Sickle Cell Unit of the Caribbean Institute of Health Research at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, has global respect for its pioneering research, as well as patient study on the disease going back decades.

Moreover, in the 1970s, long before research into the medical properties of marijuana was fashionable, UWI pharmacology professor Manley West and ophthalmologist Albert Lockhart developed a drug, Canasol, from ganja for the treatment of glaucoma. Another, Amasol, treated asthma.

Another of their colleagues, Dr Henry Lowe, is still privately doing cutting-edge research into the medical properties of marijuana and other plants to treat various cancers. Some of Dr Lowe’s products are in the early stages of clinical trials. The Seventh-day Adventist Northern Caribbean University has also done interesting work on the effects of sorrel on certain cancers, as well as in the field of robotics.

DRIVING INNOVATION

Yet, it is not this newspaper’s sense that the research efforts of the Jamaican and Caribbean institutions are sufficiently robust to quickly make a difference in the global value chain. And if they are, the institutions haven’t done a good enough job of making their efforts known, or of exciting the public about them. In this regard, we look especially to The UWI, which is ranked in the top five per cent of universities globally, whose vice-chancellor recently reminded us of its elite, though not elitist, status.

The point here is that this newspaper expects, as we have argued before, that the COVID-19 pandemic will alter, though not overthrow, the arc of economic globalisation. The disruption it has caused to global supply chains will call into question some of the just-in-time assumptions of supply delivery. Firms will want to have some of those systems closer to home. Additionally, disruptions and crises usually invite innovation, of which Jamaica and its CARICOM partners should seek to take advantage. The region, however, needs to move quickly ahead of the curve.

Firms should deepen existing partnerships with universities and research institutions, and governments should incentivise, through tax clawbacks and write-downs, or other schemes, expenditures on research and development aimed at driving innovation.

But even as this is in train, it would be good to hear that Jamaican and Caribbean researchers are working on and, better, making good progress towards a vaccine for COVID-19.