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“Combating the disease”

On the road for a very good cause: the “Mobile Malaria Project” – here in close-up view: Dr. George Busby (Expedition Leader) and Dr. Isaac Ghinai (Expedition Medic) – travelled in a Land Rover Discovery through countries in which the illness represents a serious threat. Exchanging views with local experts was one of the key tasks of the expedition supported by DB Schenker. Photos: George Busby, DB Schenker

We were on the road for more than two months. And if I had to describe just one situation that underscores the efficacy of our “Mobile Malaria Project”, this would be it: in a village on the border of Kenya and Uganda we worked with local colleagues to collect mosquitoes and sequence their DNA. We managed to do that in just half a day!

 

Malaria is still an extremely dangerous disease. In 2017, the most recent year for which we have estimates, there were 219 million cases worldwide; over 90 percent of these were in Africa. In the same year 435,000 people died of malaria. Almost two-thirds of them were children under the age of five.


In a nutshell – Dr. George Busby

Born in 1982 in the English town of Reading, George Busby is a geneticist currently working at one of the world’s best malaria genetics research groups at the Big Data Institute at Oxford University. He has published over 20 scientific papers on the genetics of everything from paper wasps to ancient humans. George Busby’s growing portfolio of public engagement projects includes the design of a card game to describe the genetics of malaria susceptibility to schoolchildren that is currently being used as teaching aid on workshops in Africa. He has travelled widely in Africa and Asia.


Significant progress has been made to reduce the burden of malaria since the year 2000. Yet over the last three years this progress has begun to stall. The parasites which cause the disease are developing resistance to the anti-malarial drugs. And this resistance is spreading. Reason enough for us to make our contribution toward combating the disease in sub-Saharan Africa!

 

What helped us realize the project was the “RGS Land Rover Bursary”. This is the name of a program under which Jaguar Land Rover and the Royal Geographical Society jointly sponsor a project each year, both in terms of funding and through the loan of a vehicle. My colleagues on the team were Dr. Isaac Ghinai und Jason Hendry – both from the University of Oxford, like myself. In Kenya we were joined by Dr. Eric Ochomo from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).

Research in and at their motor vehicle: the “Mobile Malaria Project” – visible here in close-up shots: Jason Hendry (Expedition Scientist) and Dr. Eric Ochomo (Kenya Field Project Co-leader) – proved that genetic sequencing also works outside brick-and-mortar laboratories. Photos: George Busby, Ezra Byrne, Royal Geographical Society (portrait below)

Our main aims were to visit malaria researchers in Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya to learn about their work and to teach African geneticists how to use the latest portable genetic sequencing technology in the field. We, along with others, believe that genetics has an important role to play in future malaria monitoring efforts. This is because DNA can tell you about the resistance status of populations of parasites and so provides up to date information that can be used by malaria control programs.

 

On board the Land Rover Discovery, we carried a large fridge freezer to store reagents to use for our scientific analyses. Our principal cargo, however, were several small genetic sequencing machines, called MinIONs, that were made in Oxford. These machines, no bigger than a chocolate bar, are what we used to sequence DNA. We had additional lab equipment that fit into two cases.

 

Having our logistics covered by
DB Schenker meant that we
could concentrate on our main

project ambitions”

 

Dr. George Busby, Team Leader “Mobile Malaria Project”

 

 


From Walvis Bay in Namibia in the southwest of Africa to Mombasa in Kenya in the east of the continent, we covered a distance of 7,500 kilometers. Unsurprisingly to us, we encountered a wealth of scientific talent – at the Elimination 8 Secretariat, a regional initiative based in Namibia, at the National Malaria Elimination Centre and at the Tropical Disease Research Centre in Zambia, as well as at the KEMRI Centre for Global Health Research. Unfortunately we also found that these scientists are under-resourced and have far fewer opportunities to perform cutting-edge research than we do in the global north.

 

Given this situation, our project conveyed an important message: we were able to demonstrate that it is possible to collect mosquitoes and generate genetic data on them within six hours, using only equipment and people that can fit into a single vehicle. Sequencing DNA in the back of a moving Land Rover is of course not necessarily imperative for future malaria research. But still it was a proof of principle that genetic sequencing technology no longer requires large centralized sequencing laboratories.

A continent both fascinating and diverse: on their tour, the researchers also experienced many moments to cherish on the side-lines of their ultimately successful mission – as was the case here in Tanzania. Photos: George Busby

All this would have been much more difficult to accomplish if it had not been for our logistics partner: DB Schenker were instrumental in getting the car safely from England to Africa and back again. They looked after all the administration of shipping the car from the UK to Walvis Bay, from obtaining a container to the paperwork required to get the car into Namibia and across borders. When we arrived in Mombasa, we returned the car at the DB Schenker office so that it could be shipped back.

 

Having our logistics covered by DB Schenker was a huge help and meant that we could concentrate on our main project ambitions – which can still be somewhat hard to do on this fascinating continent. I remember a day’s drive through central Tanzania that was stunning. We were on dusty roads all day, surrounded by green forests and jungle and at this time felt like we were driving right through the center of Africa – and we were!


In a nutshell – supporting the “Mobile Malaria Project”

Managed by DB Schenker UK’s Global Projects team, the Land Rover’s journey began in Tilbury on the Thames. This is where DB Schenker staff loaded the vehicle into a container and took all measures required for a safe transport. The next stop was Antwerp, and from there the journey continued on to Namibia on the “Green Mountain” – passage time: 22 days; distance traveled: 6,446 nautical miles.

 

On the trip across Africa, the specialists from DB Schenker Namibia and Kenya handled all the customs and immigration formalities – while the researchers had full access to the address system what3words, designed by DB Schenker's partner of the same name, to help them navigate in remote regions. Finally, the logistics service provider’s Kenyan team organized the transport of the car from Mombasa back to the UK, this time on the “MSC Jasmine” via the Suez Canal – a journey of 6,929 nautical miles.


There is still a great deal left to do: what is needed is the establishment of in-country genetic sequencing capacities. We also need to develop better systems for monitoring infectious diseases – systems that require a lot of different types of data, including genetic information, to provide the most up to date information. And we need the global political will for countries to work together to control the disease.

 

It would therefore be unrealistic to claim that our two-month “Mobile Malaria Project” had a decisive effect on efforts to eliminate the disease. But I am nonetheless happy to say that we fulfilled the ambitions we had when we set out, and we have laid some important foundations for future work on malaria by geneticists in Africa.

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