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How tech transfer works in a time of COVID-19

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NINE months ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, I sat down with colleagues and we brainstormed. The virus was moving quickly, how could we help developing and least developed countries accelerate access to quality lifesaving health technologies? We researched, we spoke to experts and we activated our networks – there was no time to lose.

At the same time Mario Sanchez, a Costa Rican pharmacist and entrepreneur, was boarding a plane, on a mission to try to buy medical-grade masks. But what he thought would be a simple transaction— turned out to be an odyssey that took him from Costa Rica to the U.S., Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands. For small-scale manufacturers and entrepreneurs, finding genuine, quality and affordable materials and technology to manufacture COVID-19 health products is not easy – in the first half of this year it was virtually impossible. Every step of the way Mario was met with obstacles: false leads, shoddy materials, unscrupulous dealers and an unwillingness to open and share technologies.

A few days before the borders closed, Mario returned to Costa Rica with no masks and a sobering realisation: His country was facing a dire shortage of the masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) that health professionals would need to confront the pandemic. And the only way Costa Rica was going to have enough of these supplies was to start making them.
In many ways, Mario was well-placed to take on this challenge—he runs a drug-manufacturing company and even wrote his master’s thesis on medical shortages.

Despite this, Mario struggled to access the technology necessary to make the medical-grade masks that hospitals desperately needed.
Whilst Mario had been on the road, our project had come to life. The Tech Access Partnership was launched – connecting manufacturers, entrepreneurs and other technology seekers in developing countries with global innovators, universities and others who make their intellectual property and technologies available in order to serve the common good.

Within a few days we linked Mario with a Turkish company, MEMSIS, that had developed a membrane for use in medical-grade masks. We accompanied the two parties as they reached an agreement and navigated the regulatory process. This was a partnership that Mario could trust.

In a matter of months, Mario has designed and manufactured a mask that is suitable for medical use, received regulatory approval from the Costa Rican government and produced and tested prototypes. Once manufacturing ramps up Mario will supply masks to Costa Rica, as well as the rest of Central America and the Caribbean—a region home to nearly 90 million people. We worked with the developer and Mario to help him understand the regulations and assessments necessary for the mask to get national and international approval

Mario’s project is proof that we can meet global health challenges by matching civic-minded innovators with enterprising manufacturers in developing countries. At the Tech Access Partnership, we record requests and offers, vet technologies and draw on UN and external expertise to set up optimal matches for tech transfer. This ensures that partnerships have a better chance at making a lasting impact. We are in talks with other local partners in Lesotho and South Africa, and confident that collaborations like these have the potential to bolster nations’ health systems and their broader economies.

Despite these successes, there is still much to do. COVID-19 has not always behaved as expected. As the virus and needs of developing countries change and adapt, so must we.
Community masks are an effective and suitable choice for the public, yet medical grade masks are crucial for protecting health care workers. At least 7,000 healthcare workers globally have died from Covid-19. We will continue connecting socially-minded entrepreneurs like Mario Sanchez with the technology they need to stem this tide.

As the virus treatment has evolved, we have learned that our initial projection of the need for more ventilators has not materialized. What developing countries need is increased capacity to maintain and repair the ventilators they already have or adapt them for use by COVID-19 patients. We are engaging other actors to extend their support to countries and also call on countries that now have excess capacity of ventilators to consider partnering with us to make these available to countries that still lack adequate capacity. The Tech Access Partnership will also pivot to addressing these important needs in the medical device space: oxygen and pulse oximeters.

Many of the sickest coronavirus patients need supplemental oxygen in order to survive, yet too many people are denied this life saving treatment because they live in countries with oxygen shortages. We are encouraged to see that some pilot studies have been undertaken to help low-resource health systems increase their ability to manufacture oxygen. Scaling these efforts is now key and we believe technology transfer can play a leading role.

Pulse oximeters have also become a crucial tool to determine whether a Covid-19 patient’s blood oxygen levels have dropped into the danger zone. And yet, most of the pulse oximeters on the market today produce accurate readings only on lighter skin tones, leading to potentially dangerous medical errors for people with darker skin. This represents another clear instance where it will be essential to broker a transfer of technology between intellectual property holders and local manufacturers to produce pulse oximeters that are suited to the population that will use them.

Meanwhile, despite manufacturers’ recent commitments to make a certain number of rapid diagnostic tests available to Least Developed Countries, through the WHO led ACT – Accelerator, these donations are not enough to properly manage the pandemic long-term. They do not free developing countries of dependency on others to meet their health needs. Effective technology transfer can. We will continue to take a leading role in technology transfer that boosts the vital local production of tests. At the same time, we and our partners will continue to advocate to address the shortages of investments for developing these essential diagnostic capacities, especially in developing countries.

While we remain committed to helping countries meet their health challenges, there is also potential to apply technology transfer to address other pressing issues faced by least developed countries. One of these problems is medical waste. WHO estimate that globally 89 million medical masks, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million goggles are needed each month for COVID-19 response. The pandemic has produced mountains of discarded personal PPE, hampering efforts to contain the pandemic and also harming the environment.

The Tech Access Partnership is committed to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and has begun to consider ways to address the PPE waste challenges, using environmentally friendly technology and circular economic practices that eliminate waste.
The current moment is fraught with uncertainty as the very systems that sustain life—from our health systems to our ecosystems — are under unprecedented stress. We must not be afraid to adapt and aim for the highest possible standards.

Mario Sanchez took a risk and it is paying off -because he found the right partner. Never has it been more important to have genuine and trustworthy partnerships in place. At the WISH global healthcare summit in Qatar two weeks ago we shared ideas on how technology transfer offers commercial and social optimism for the future. We are taking a collective and nimble effort to get lifesaving technology to those that need it and to build solid health systems that can tackle the greatest health challenges of our time.

l Joshua Setipa is the Managing Director of the UN Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries. The Tech Access Partnership is a joint collaboration between The UN Technology Bank, UNDP, UNCTAD and WHO

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Reforms: time to change hearts and minds

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A very important milestone is gradually being reached in Lesotho politics. On April 6, 2022, I attended a National Reforms Authority (NRA)’s High-level Forum on the State of the Implementation of the Lesotho National Reforms at ’Manthabiseng Convention Centre.

For the first time, I heard at that meeting politicians acknowledging that Lesotho’s political problems have a lot to do with politicians themselves, and not with written clauses of the Constitution.

This is a point that this country’s intellectuals and academics have made for years. Lesotho politicians have refused to listen both because of their dislike for the country’s academics and because of absence of any communication between the two groups as a result of that dislike.

If politicians could use their newly-acquired wisdom as a basis from which to proceed in attempts to solve Lesotho’s political problems, there is potential for great strides to be made, finally.

Political instability bedevils Lesotho because the hearts and minds of politicians continue to be inclined to break the law, or to look for ‘loopholes’, in pursuit of narrow interests; and continue to change clauses of the Constitution when such clauses do not allow the pursuit and achievement of narrow interests.

We need a change of heart and mind-set among our politicians in order to make headway in building a politically stable society. Politicians’ narrow interests should not be a basis for what needs to happen in Lesotho. The need for constitutional changes and the search for loopholes will persist but they should not be inspired by the pursuit of narrow interests, as has hitherto happened.

Instead, to us the public, it should become necessary to reform the constitution on two conditions only. First, when it is found that the constitution does not adequately address concerns with the socio-economic welfare of Basotho. Second, when it becomes necessary to ensure that Basotho exercise real power on who rules them and on how they are ruled. These conditions are cardinal.

And they should inform all thought and action in Lesotho’s politics.

As has happened many times already, even these costly ongoing reforms of clauses of the Constitution will be all for naught if concern for politicians’ own welfare continues to be a primary motive behind their pursuit for parliamentary seats, and what they do once in parliament.

It may well be that the current and next generation of politicians will be short of men and women with hearts and mind-set fit for service to Basotho’s welfare. But serious attempts need to be made to ensure the generation after the next has a critical mass of such politicians.

This cannot only be wished for. It has to be worked for. One thought is to introduce a curriculum that teaches people the capacity to think of others, and care for others. These are some of the attributes mostly missing among our politicians. Their incapacity to think of others leads to their lack of a sense of public duty that we see and experience every day.

We have neglected the task of socialising and educating empathetic hearts and mind-sets claiming that Africans and Basotho naturally and culturally subscribe to, and live in accordance with, ubuntu (humanity). It is quite obvious that this is not true. People who make this claim loudest are the middle classes who, while claiming to subscribe to ubuntu, live in houses surrounded by six feet high perimeter walls.

There may be other thoughts than socialisation on this. What we have to hope for is that from here onwards, in our search for solutions to Lesotho political problems, we will proceed from the recognition that, primarily, these problems emanate not from inappropriate written texts of the Constitution but from hearts and minds of men and women.

Motlatsi Thabane

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We have lost our moral indignation

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I remember when the allegations that Tšeliso Nthane had shot and killed one of his employees first came to the surface. It was in 2019, back when the air was not so poisonous and Basotho still had much of their hope. Well not much because this is generally a hopeless, desolate wasteland but some small pretence of hope still remained. The nation was angry, and rightfully so. The consensus was that men like Nthane, no matter how deep their pockets, should not be allowed to act with impunity. A man was dead and we were baying for justice.

A lot has happened since then. The Covid-19 pandemic, mass retrenchments and job losses, the ever dwindling power of the loti. This and that but all has been more negative than positive in this place so when the time came for Nthane to be handed judgment we had mostly stopped caring as we had to deal with the business of living .

Anyway the man was found not guilty. I will confess I did not read the judgement for fear it will sink me lower into the abyss that is life in Lesotho. However, news of that sort cannot escape one even if they try, more especially if they are on social media. No sooner had judgment been handed down that social media debates began raging.

Suddenly everyone was an expert in punitive versus remedial justices and the pros and cons therein. Many argued that once more the rich had been proven to be above the law. A statement clouded in naivety really because had they been paying attention they would have realised that there is nothing to prove as the rich have always been above the law.

Those who fancy themselves the harbingers of remedial justice argued that Nthane had made certain payments to the family and thus paid his debt. I have no personal knowledge of these payments but I was of course curious to know how much the price of a life is amongst these parts.

They further argued that since Nthane owned many companies that employed many Basotho it would not be in the national interests to send him to prison as jobs would be lost. I am not sure how Basotho think companies work and if they have ever heard that they are a separate legal entity from their owners but no matter. This is certainly an elucidation on the finer points of company law.

I have in the past been guilty of judging my countrymen, perhaps a little too harshly as it is sometimes hard to make sense of their motivations but to hear young people speak so vehemently for letting a man walk free after another has died simply because he is in a position to provide them with a livelihood reminded me once more of the stark hopelessness when it comes to finding a job in this country.

Basotho youths are not uneducated, they are not immoral or unfeeling and they certainly are not pro-murder. At least I hope so. What they are however is hungry and desperate and desperation can reduce even the most pious man to his knees. What good is moral outrage if one is outraged on an empty stomach?

What good will it do for them to be out in the street being activists for social and moral issues when they barely can afford the nine maloti to hop into a taxi and arrive at such a demonstration? To argue that anyone who can offer them jobs should be treated differently as far as the law is concerned is a statement borne out of the worst kind of desperation and instead of making me angry, it made me sad.

Now, I have not enough knowledge of the case against Nthane to say whether I feel the judgment was fair and just. All I know is I certainly want it not to be in favour of him simply because he has jobs and livelihoods to give. It is however easy for me to judge from my privileged position where I have a meal guaranteed every night. It is easy to be morally indignant when one does not have to worry about the indignities of joblessness.

I spoke last week of how easy it is for us to condemn young people who lay their bodies on the human resource table. We laugh at older people who walk for kilometres to attend political rallies and sing for “baetapele” (leaders) and fail to take into account that in a moment of desperation a man who offers you promises of a job you badly need is someone you would follow to a rally.

To see young women in the arms of 70-year-olds who are not even good company. To see young men vehemently justify that murder should be forgiven if the alleged murderer can offer them a livelihood will quickly disabuse one of the notion that there is any progress happening in Lesotho.

So here we are in a country where people are willing to sell their bodies and souls for a chance at a decent life.

Here we are about to enter another election season and the only people who stand to truly benefit are the owners of guest houses. Whether Nthane got a fair verdict or not is immaterial to me, what remains shocking is how we have lost our moral indignation as a country. It appears Tom Thabane, that erstwhile leader was right when he said “sera sa motho ke tlala”. To quote the younger generations of Ma2000: “Because wow”.

Thakane Rethabile Shale

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No peace plan, no economic recovery

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The world’s struggle to reboot economies viciously disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic remains real. However, the impact could be more severe to countries that already had dwindling economies and lack a way out, chief amongst them Lesotho. The focus on recovery gets disrupted from time to time by new variants seemingly more infectious than the previous ones; we had the Delta variant and now Omicron.

Several countries seem to be putting their own nationals ahead of everyone else. The squabble between the European Union and the United Kingdom over vaccines was but an example of leaders who put the interests of their own people first. The leaders surely knew that the world would not win the fight over Covid unless the rest of the world is vaccinated as stated by the World Health Organisation.

They however made plans to keep their people safe first, protect their boundaries and then set stringent entry conditions into their countries to further protect their own people. Though this may seem selfish, who in their right mind would not do the same?

As countries draw and implement plans to get their economies back on track, Lesotho has very little to show if anything at all. Businesses shut doors and the few people who had jobs lost their only incomes. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Lesotho was already struggling to engage in much needed capital projects because it simply did not have the money.
Sadly, there is no watertight plan let alone a draft to increase dwindling revenue following the reviewed Southern Africa Custom Union’s approach. There is basically no plan to support entrepreneurs to scale up thereby increasing the tax base. Instead, the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) is expected to milk dry the remaining few dying cows.

With this hopeless state of affairs in Lesotho, one would be misled to think that Lesotho is not capable of making solid plans and sticking to them. The reality is, Lesotho, a country of around 2 million people only is indeed capable of doing more for her few people. She has abundant resources; minerals and human capital.

Sadly, the skills and resources are always misdirected to produce negative energy among Basotho. The only fully funded strategy that Lesotho is committed to at the moment and can be articulated clearly by all parties involved without having to consult is Mothetjoa Metsing’s arrest. Metsing is accused of treason based on a hard-to-understand incident where he was a coalition partner and a Deputy Prime Minister, yet he is said to have been involved in an attempt to unseat the then Prime Minister Thabane.
Thabane of course did leave the country but Metsing never dreamt of taking over the premier’s office. The police, Public Prosecutor and the executive are all on the same page about progress and what the next move against Metsing should be.

There are officers ready to do whatever it takes to bring him down. There is no shortage of resources when it comes to arresting him. Intelligence is on top of its game when it comes to him. The propaganda machinery is fully empowered. When will the government get its priorities right?
The army commander Lt Gen Motšomotšo and senior army officials Col Sechele and Col Hashatsi were shot dead in broad daylight, within the army barracks and there is absolutely nothing and no one who has been held accountable for their killing. This against the background that former army commander Lt Gen Tlali Kamoli and others remain in prison for years pending the case surrounding among others the killing of yet another army commander Maaparankoe Mahao.

Where is the logic here? No investigations, no arrests, absolutely nothing on the killing of the three high profile army officials. Yet the government is persecuting Metsing for allegedly plotting to oust a government which never happened.
Around 80 people died in cold blood in police custody under the All Basotho Convention-led operation – “Tokho”. The then Prime Minister Tom Thabane allowed the police to torture people and the Lesotho Congress for Democracy tried to force the premier to withdraw his instructions to the police. That however drew a blank.

The police chief has not yet been called to account for these deaths. The police are doing what Basotho were complaining about during the reign of the previous regime that the army was acting with impunity. Suddenly, it is ok for the police to brutally torture and kill Basotho.
Suddenly, it is ok for army bosses to be killed with impunity. That’s the only reasonable conclusion that one arrives at based on the hesitation of the government to do anything about the killers on the government’s payroll.
The government of Lesotho needs to focus on revamping this country’s economy, creating jobs, improving health services, building infrastructure, promoting peace and unity and managing the escalating crime rate. Lesotho fails to acknowledge that the country’s peace is a group effort and Basotho must all be in it to work.

Investors are unlikely to risk their money in a country that is not at peace with itself. Until the government get its priorities right, Lesotho will continue to struggle to have peace and a stable economy. This will translate to high unemployment worse compared to where it is currently.
Metsing had a peace plan that was unfortunately not supported by some parties. Those who opposed it could only assume that it would let him go free. They never weighed options nor tabled alternative peace-making efforts. To them the country would rather suffer, rather be divided than accept the fact that the government was never toppled. There are far more pressing issues in Lesotho. Instead of paying loads of money to a foreign prosecutor, and taking much valuable time from our courts of law, we should be focusing our priorities on something positive. We need to heal and move on as a nation, not as individuals.

Potjo Potjo

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