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Why Kenya still lags behind South Africa in vaccine research

KEMRI Lab scientist Dr. Samson Limbaso works on coronavirus samples obtained from the public at the Sample Management and Reception facility in Nairobi on March 24, 2020. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

South Africa stood tall with the discovery of Beta and Omicron variants of Covid-19 last year, largely credited to its advanced genomic sequencing which detects new variants faster.

While Kenya is currently the largest exporter of vaccine syringes and is gearing up to open a vaccine factory this year, it lags behind countries like South Africa in vaccine research.

Research for malaria vaccine, approved last year by the World Health Organisation (WHO), was carried out in three other African countries -with Kenya as a key pillar in the clinical trials.

The country also has no shortage of brains in medical research.

Dr Patricia Njuguna, a scientist at Kemri, was among those who conducted tests when the malaria vaccine (RTS) was approved. This was done under pilot programme from 2003 until 2021.

It was also at Kemri that the research that made the mosquito-nets standard of care in the world was done.

But still, Kenya cannot hold a candle to South Africa in medical research, especially on the vaccine front.

Matilu Mwau, the deputy director at Kemri, argues that, unlike Kenya, and other countries, South Africa has invested heavily in artificial intelligence, bioinformatics and machine learning which enable quicker detection of Covid-19 variants.

“There are three things that have made South Africa to be strong in identification of variants- prioritised genotyping of coronavirus, excellent infrastructure and workforce,” said Prof Mwau.

“It also has got bioinformatics tools.”

Bioinformatics, added the virologist, is a sub-discipline of biology and computer science concerned with the acquisition, storage, analysis, and dissemination of biological data, mostly DNA and amino acid sequences. Currently, South Africa does genotyping for coronavirus and many sequences programmed to instantly understand them.

“In Kenya, because we have not invested much in bioinformatics, we go to some labs and find there are sequences, and start looking at them one by one to find out which variant they might be related to,” explained Mwau.

And though Kenya has human resource and resources, including genotyping, the researcher reckons that the level of investment against volume of work is low.

Genotyping requires a genetic analyser or a sequencer and then software after establishing what the genes are. 

South Africa has invested in genotyping and bioinformatics to identify variants as its government “is in control of science, whereas in Kenya, if we have to do genotyping, we have to look for money,” lamented Mwau.

Besides being in the forefront of Covid-19 variants detection, South Africa’s medical field has been a trailblazer since cardiologist Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant, a nine-hour operation in 1967.

Dr Barnard’s patient suffered from diabetes and incurable heart disease and “South Africa has had extraordinary events into the medical field, with gifted scientists who are passionate about innovation,” observed Mwau. Then there is the question of financial muscle.

South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are some of the continent’s largest economies south of the Sahara. But Kenya only spends 0.8 per cent of its GDP on research systems, with 30 per cent earmarked for health research.

South Africa, on the other hand, with a bigger economy than Kenya spends 0.75 per cent of its GDP on research systems.

Dr Moses Mwangi, former Regional Director of Sanofi Pasteur and a vaccine specialist, said besides being Africa’s largest economy with a higher standard of living, South Africa is also greatly helped by having advanced institutions of higher learning. Like the University of Cape Town which is not only highly ranked in the continent, but also in the world. This means besides teaching, serious research goes on there.

South Africa is also ahead in terms of funding and research infrastructure, including many institutions like the Medical Research Council and National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

“Kenya too has powerful collaborations and partnerships with bodies like Walter Reed and Oxford, but the funding is at a higher scale in South Africa. Without money, not much output can be expected,” said Dr Mwangi.

He lamented that the top political appointees tasked with handling the health docket are another weak link as most “lack knowledge, experience and value of medical research.” 

Though both countries have national research funds established by law, Kenya has fewer researchers.

“Indeed, Kenyan medical research institutions spend a lot of time writing proposals, making bids, seeking donor funding and international partners. It is time to find innovative ways of increasing pressure on our policy-makers to appropriately and promptly fund medical research,” says Dr Cecilia Wanjala, a   researcher and the deputy director commercial enterprises at Kemri.

She adds that donor money most times cannot be diverted to combating emergencies like Covid-19 and it also dries up meaning The National Treasury needs to allocate more funds. James Kimotho, another researcher at Kemri, says donor funding comes with stringent conditions.

Dr Kimotho cited the cost of laboratory research as another impediment. He estimated that lab research is four times more expensive here than in Europe due to taxes on reagents, equipment, transportation of the instruments and tedious procurement process. While South Africa manufactures some health reagents, Kenya imports them.

Mwau said Kenyan researchers are not within the research systems due to various historical, cultural and behavioural factors.

“Many people who should be involved in research are out in the cold, and many involved in research have no clue what research is.

“South Africa takes research leadership seriously and those leading research institutions have three characteristics, domain knowledge, management skills and communication skills.”