Top Kenyan scientists urged to join global search for Covid-19 cure

Friday March 27 2020

Medics test protective gear at Mbagathi Hospital during the launch of an isolation and treatment centre for the new coronavirus disease -2019, dubbed Covid-19, in Nairobi on March 6. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Kenyan scientists have joined the global race to find a vaccine for Covid-19.

The Sunday Nation has established that researchers in Kenya have been approached to identify candidates for the vaccine trials, putting the country at the forefront of the fight to stop the pandemic.

A research team from the University of Nairobi (UoN) has already come up with a protocol for the research and have completed coronavirus case management guidelines, which have been handed to the Ministry of Health for publication.

“The guidelines will form the basis of how the coronavirus response will be coordinated and managed. We are now mobilising resources to support the research,” Dr Loice Achieng’ Ombajo, an infectious disease specialist who is part of the team said.

The other members of the team, which is based at UoN’s Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (Kavi) Institute of Clinical Research are Prof Omu Anzala, who is the team leader, Dr Moses Masika and Dr Marybeth Cherono Maritim.

The team is leading the national case management efforts. Some of their responsibilities include studying how the virus is responding to treatment. The information collected will be used for current and future epidemics.


On Friday morning, the team held a meeting at the UoN Council offices. Council chairperson Julia Ojiambo and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Kiama said the university would support the research efforts.

“Kenyan people are looking at institutions of higher learning and research to provide solutions on stopping coronavirus. We are assembling our best researchers and scientists to assist,” Prof Ojiambo said.

Established in 1999 as a research unit within the department of Medical Microbiology, Kavi’s was to spearhead research in HIV/AIDs and the discovery of a vaccine in Kenya.

Vaccines are the best bet for viral infections. But despite being one of the greatest public health tools to prevent disease, vaccine development remains an expensive and risky process. The process takes months, sometimes years, because the vaccines must undergo extensive testing.

With each new virus outbreak, scientists typically have to start from scratch. For instance, after the SARS outbreak in 2003, it took researchers 20 months from the release of the virus sequence to get a vaccine ready for human trials. The delay in coming up with a vaccine forced researchers to push for more global collaboration.

As a result, it only took six months for a vaccine to be ready for human trials for the Zika virus after the outbreak in 2015.


Efforts to find a vaccine for the virus have gathered steam after Chinese academics posted the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus on a public database in January, a few days after the illness was reported in China.
There are over 20 parallel efforts to come up with a vaccine, with one development beginning human trials after skipping animal trials. Already, trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe.

The small team of scientists from UoN said that while global efforts will take months, the immediate concern will be to study and understand the virus.

“Part of our research includes answering the question of when one is declared free of the coronavirus, because in some instances, individuals who have tested negative end up testing positive in subsequent examinations,” Prof Anzala said. He added that the team will collect urine, stool and blood samples from patients who have been declared free of the virus so as to establish at what point they stop spreading it.

“We have set up the infrastructure to test the Covid-19 virus. We are in the process of getting reagents and working out different procedures,” said Dr Masika.

Since its establishment, Kavi has carried out a total of 16 vaccine clinical trials and researches, including those for Ebola, HIV/AIDs and Chikungunya. On April 1, 2015, the institute became the second research organisation to initiate an Ebola vaccine study as part of a global network of researchers.

The team is drawn from different specialisations. Prof Anzala is trained on advanced vaccinology, experimental epidemiology and bioethics from leading institutions, including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Foundation Maeruir in France. He was the principal investigator for the HIV vaccine trials.

Dr Maritim is a tropical medicine specialist while Dr Ombajo is an infectious diseases specialist. She heads the Infectious Disease Unit at the Kenyatta National Hospital.

Other than the team tasked with carrying out research on the virus, Prof Wallace Bulimo is leading the laboratory committee, which is responsible for the testing of suspected cases in Kenya, parts of East African and several Indian Ocean islands.

“Our work is to ensure that individuals suspected to have the virus are tested and to coordinate national efforts in identifying new cases,” Prof Bulimo explained. Prof Bulimo, a molecular virologist, is the Chief Research Officer at the National Influenza Centre. He is also a consulting virologist for the US Army Medical Research Unit-Kenya and a lecturer at UoN’s Department of Biochemistry.

He is working alongside other leading scientists among them Dr Evans Amukowe, Dr Joel Lotumia, Prof Matilu Mwau, Dr Verah Manduku (the Director Centre for Clinical research in Kemri) and Mamo Omuro, the National HIV Reference Laboratory manager.