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Kenya and UK using science to fight virus

By George Magoha and Jane Marriott | June 9th 2020 at 00:40:29 GMT +0300

Kenyans and Brits alike have been forced to change their way of life by the coronavirus that is sweeping across both of our countries. The immediate impacts of the virus can be severe, but the secondary impacts – on jobs, livelihoods, our children’s education, higher learning – are also apparent.

Covid-19 has not limited our ability to work together though. It has not stopped us scaling up joint research to find vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to contain the virus. It has not stopped us from adapting our economies to cope. And it has not stopped us from doing our utmost to protect our citizens. We are proud of our joint record on tackling major diseases, and coronavirus is no exception.

Both governments have agreed to develop a joint action plan in coronavirus research, science, technology and innovation. This brings together, and builds on, a lot of work already happening together. Our collective ambition is high: we want to enable Kenyan and UK academics, innovators and entrepreneurs to share skills and ideas on how to respond to and beat this virus.

There were three key areas we agreed to work on together.

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The first is the immediate task of exploring tangible interventions deriving from research in health. These encompass issues of disease epidemiology and surveillance, public health and psycho-social aspects, disease control strategies and preventive measures, therapeutic approaches, vaccine development, studies on the characterisation of Covid-19 and diagnostic techniques. To support this research on these interventions, the UK has committed Sh97 billion globally to end the pandemic as quickly as possible. We both want vaccines and treatments that are available – and affordable – for all.

To support the above initiatives, we shall be leveraging the long history between Kenya and the UK on health-related research. This includes a long-standing partnership between research institutes, universities and researchers from both countries who have worked together in ground-breaking and life-saving research, such as trialling bed nets as a prevention tool for malaria, pneumonia vaccine trials, and Ebola vaccine trials. Today, these researchers are at the forefront of the Kenyan government’s coronavirus response and their research findings are instrumental in informing key policy decisions. Consequently, our continued collaboration in research, science, technology and innovation will have a critical role to play in helping to better understand the pandemic in Kenya, and in supporting the response.

The second focus is on managing the effects of Covid-19 on our economies. Our two countries have sadly not been spared. Coordinated action is vital to manage and reduce the economic damage of the crisis, to protect jobs and businesses, and support stability in the economic and financial system. We are supporting entrepreneurs, keeping supply routes open and helping to attract investment.

Through jointly funded programmes such as the Kenya-UK Newton Utafiti Fund and the ‘Africa Covid-19 innovation call’, Kenyans are supported to innovate in the production of equipment through locally sourced materials to mitigate against the effects of the pandemic. The support includes the provision of 3D printers, designs and grants to pilot the manufacture of protective face masks and visors for front-line medical staff among other progressive initiatives.

Vulnerable sections

The UK, in collaboration with Unilever, are supporting innovative solutions in water, sanitation and hygiene targeting most vulnerable sections of society as part of the Covid-19 response. We are also helping to get public health information to vulnerable Kenyan communities, including the young and those with disabilities.

The third area is on technology advancement. Our Kenya-UK Tech Hub partnered with several local and international stakeholders in the Great Covid-19 Innovation Hackathon that took place last month. The aim was to find innovators across Kenya addressing three challenges: Health systems, food security and dignified work. Over 300 individuals, universities and organisations applied with their ideas. Encouragingly, more than half were outside of Nairobi, showing the breadth of innovation across the country.

There is a lot to do. The challenges that both of our countries face are huge. The only way we will tackle them and defeat this virus is through working together.

Prof Magoha is the Education Cabinet Secretary while Ms Marriott is the British High Commissioner to Kenya. They are co-chairs of the UK-Kenya Oversight Board on Research, Science, Technology and Innovation

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