I am glad to present you the first feature article on The African Scientist. It is about the award-winning Liberian scientist Dr. Dougbeh Nyan, whom I contacted some time ago. Dr. Nyan appreciated the idea of The African Scientist to make people aware of a side of 'Africa' that was probably hardly known to many so far - scientific excellence.
Dr. Nyan is, among other things, the inventor of the so-called Nyan test, a rapid diagnostic test that can detect Ebola, HIV, Zika, malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, hepatitis B, C, and E, the MERS virus, and last but not least, the now globally feared Virus Sars-Cov-2.
Dr. Dougbeh Nyan Dr. Dougbeh Christopher Nyan is among Africa's most prominent experts on infectious diseases. He is a medical doctor, award-winning biomedical researcher and social activist in his own right. Nevertheless, first things first.
Social activist or medical doctor? Dougbeh Nyan was born in Liberia. A country that, if at all, appears in the news for war, Ebola, or pictures of child soldiers. As a child, Nyan initially wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become a civil rights lawyer or foreign policy expert, but he eventually enrolled in the Institute of Science and Technology at the University of Liberia to study chemistry and zoology. Influenced by his father, however, the issue of social justice remained prominent in his life and quickly brought him into conflict with state violence. Prison, Exile and Charité In 1988, students nationwide take their protest against the government to the streets of Liberia. They demand freedom of the press and oppose massive human rights violations. As a student leader, Nyan attracted the unwanted attention of the state authorities and was expelled from the university at the behest of then Liberian President Samuel Doe. In order to set an example, he is sent to prison as a young man together with other "ringleaders" and is finally forced to leave the country. Via detours, his exile finally leads him to Germany, where he studies human medicine at the Charité in Berlin, specializing in infectious diseases. At that time, he could not have known that Berlin would play a role in his life again several years later.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rgVdBcC9oA
The researcher awakens An ambitious graduate, a scholarship allows Nyan to enrol in postgraduate programs in biomedicine at the world-renowned National Institute of Health (NIH) and the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. Subsequently, Nyan serves as a researcher at both the NIH and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The fight against infectious diseases becomes his professional passion from then on. In 2014, another formative event occurs in his life. In addition to the West African nations of Guinea and Sierra Leone, his home country of Liberia is also hit by the largest Ebola fever outbreak in history to date, with more than 28,000 people falling ill and more than 11,000 dying. Now an infectious disease expert, Dr. Nyan becomes head of Liberia's Diaspora Liberia Emergency Response Task Force during the Ebola crisis. "The unprofessional statements of some non-medical government officials have caused widespread disbelief among the general population that the Ebola virus is real," was one of his criticisms of the Liberian government after his dangerous deployment. Everything lost, everything gained On September 17, 2014, he was finally called to appear before the U.S. Congress to report on the work of the diaspora experts. But he could hardly have envisaged what happened next. Following his report before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, his employment with the FDA is terminated overnight. In addition, Nyan accused the FDA of not recognizing his contributions to a scientific research effort as such and of denying the development of a medical diagnostic test for infectious diseases and assigning it to others.
However, the budding researcher is in luck. In Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, chairperson of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Nyan finds an influential advocate. Smith writes to FDA Chairman Robert M. Califf: "Based on the colleague's [Nyan's] congressional testimony, two scientists in management positions within the FDA's Division of Emerging and Transfusion Transmitted Diseases (DETTD) were apparently concerned about potentially harmful effects on the FDA". Nevertheless, what had happened? As the Washington Post reported in 2016, for example, Nyan was "mildly critical of international efforts to fight Ebola" before Congress. For example, he had called on Washington to provide support for sending experts from the "African diaspora" to affected countries. In addition, he carried, among other things, a recommendation to increase "civilian medical (U.S.) personnel by about 1,000 in the Liberia region as a reinforcement of the 3,000 troops to be deployed," according to the transcript of the hearing. Clearly, this was not how the FDA had envisioned expert Nyan's appearance. With no income and a credit card "maxed out," Nyan, a father of four, and his family survive largely thanks to the help of friends and relatives. Nevertheless, Congressman Smith is still by his side. He initiates an investigation, from which Nyan actually emerges victorious in the end. After two years, in October 2016, Nyan receives the documents for the application for a patent for infectious diagnostics back from the FDA. The "Nyan Test" for pathogen diagnostics Nyan's innovation (the Nyan Test) is a rapid diagnostic test capable of detecting Ebola, HIV, Zika, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, Hepatitis B, C and E, the MERS virus and also the now globally feared Corona virus (COVID-19), among others. The technology is capable of providing results for three to seven infections simultaneously - within 10 to 40 minutes. Conventional testing methods require 3 to 7 days for equivalent performance.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ie7mqmm8n4w
An innovation of enormous potential, because it is not only in most African countries that there is a lack of easy-to-use, cost-effective and sophisticated diagnostic procedures. In addition, local expertise in high-tech diagnostics is limited. Furthermore, the test is able to detect and differentiate between multiple infections with the same symptoms, such as when a patient is infected with yellow fever, malaria and Ebola at the same time.
Taking credit for hard work Nyan's expertise and inventiveness shall not go unnoticed. After two years of review, Dr. Nyan is initially granted U.S. Patent No. 10072309 on September 11, 2018, for the multiplexed test he developed to diagnose infectious diseases. Previously, three pilot clinical studies of the test had been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and published in scientific journals such as Nature and the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. Following this renewed personal milestone, "market analysts project this technology to be a multi-million dollar enterprise in a $33 billion global market for rapid diagnostic test kits." Now granted the U.S. patent, Nyan stresses that "African governments must strongly support innovators and ensure intellectual property protection in science, technology, medicine and the arts for the continent to secure talent, innovation and African ingenuity. Just like the United States and Europe do." In 2017, Dr. Nyan is awarded the prestigious Innovation Prize for Africa. The following year, the biomedical technology he developed is recognized and showcased as one of the top 50 innovations during the 2018 Africa Innovation Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. He also receives the "Lifetime Achievement Award" in medical research from the Ward Educational Fund in the United States. Africa is not a test lab Meanwhile, however, Dr. Nyan is aware that biomedical research also has its downside. "Once we set up these institutions [to regulate vaccine testing, for example], we as African scientists will be the ones to evaluate each formula and approve or reject its application on the African continent. Therefore, nothing will be imposed on us by anyone, not even neocolonial scientists." The background was comments by French physicians Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht that poor African populations in particular would be suitable for testing Corona vaccines. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the French doctors' remarks "the aftermath of a colonial mentality." In early November 2020, the paths of the German capital and the Liberian, who has long since joined the ranks of internationally renowned biomedical scientists, finally crossed again - this time digitally due to the Corona crisis. As every year, the World Science Summit in Berlin in 2020 honored scientific breakthroughs from around the world. For the first time, Science Week and the Falling Walls conference were held together and virtually. And in the city where he once studied human medicine in exile, Dr. Nyan also receives the appropriate recognition for the "Nyan test" he developed (see YouTube video above). Nyan currently serves as medical and scientific research director at the company he founded, Shufflex Biomed.