Prof Davy Koech reveals how KEMRI was started and why KEMRON was rejected
By Caleb Atemi
| October 17th 2021
Prof. Davy Kiprotich Koech looks back and reveals the pain, blood and tears that went into setting up KEMRI and why he refused to renew the patent for KEMRON, a drug KEMRI had developed to treat and manage HIV/AIDS.
Prof Davy Koech shudders each time he recalls his childhood and his hospitalisation with a broken leg. The excruciating pain and humiliation he suffered on that hospital bed as a 10-year-old still gnaws at his soul.
It is that encounter with cruel nurses and ruthless doctors, plus the number of people he saw succumb to diseases such as malaria that ignited in him the fire to pursue medical research. He grew up determined to pursue research that would help alleviate suffering while strengthening the health care system.
Koech joined hands with Prof Kihumbu Thairu and Prof Mutuma Mugambi, to initiate the establishment of a premier research institution. Thus, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) was born.
“We wanted to establish a clinical research centre within the medical school. But first, we had to lobby for the amendment of Science and Technology Act of 1977 to enable setting up research institutions in Kenya. In March 1979, Parliament passed the Bill.”
The three even lobbied former Attorney General Charles Njonjo who asked two officers to work with the trio in drafting a Bill. Koech was brought in to provide information to the technocrats on matters health.
The making of KEMRI
Setting up KEMRI came with numerous obstacles. It was difficult getting office space or money for salaries let alone research.
The three researchers had to use personal earnings to run offices in a prefabricated building within the open grounds of the National Public Health Laboratory Services: “I remember once going to the director of medical services to inform him that we needed money. I told him that according to the law we were entitled to government funding. I even quoted the section in the Act. Infuriated, he took out a piece of paper and told me: ‘If this is what is guiding you, let it give you the money. Now get out.’ He threw the paper at me.”
The trio was saddened and pained. After two days of mental torture and agony, they applied for a grant: “We were given USD72,000 through the ministry of health. We had no account. To date, I have no idea where that money went to. It just disappeared.”
Koech smiles, pauses and delves deeper into the KEMRI story.
The development of KEMRI was necessitated by the refusal of the University of Nairobi’s Medical school to set up a research wing.
The Science and Technology (Amendment) Act created KEMRI and other institutions. But KEMRI had neither funding nor physical facilities of its own.
Koech proudly recalls when KEMRI officially opened its doors on November 5, 1979. The Board of Management had been appointed on November 1 of that year.
“Fortunately, Prof Kihumbu Thairu became the first chairman of our board. He was one of the colleagues with whom we had gone to ask the Attorney General for the amendment to the Science and Technology Act. It was then that Dr James Gikonyo was appointed our first director. Prof Mutuma Mugambi was in charge of the Clinical Research Centre that was supported by the WHO,” recalls Koech.
Building the foundation for KEMRI
Koech was appointed as Mugambi’s principal assistant. Mugambi’s training was in cardiology.
The two indulged in a few studies on cardiovascular diseases. However, Koech continued laboratory work on parasitology, infectious diseases and pathology.
He utilised other laboratories such as the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases and the World Health Organisation Immunology Research and Training Centre of the UoN Medical School.
“We had no physical place yet for KEMRI. There was no department and we had to look at how to bring in some of the lost departments that were part of the now-defunct East African Community.
“The Tuberculosis Investigation Centre joined us with its director Dr Joseph Aluoch, and then the Virus Research Centre came in with the former head of the unit, a Ugandan called Dr. Peter Tukei and Leprosy centre in Alupe, Busia County under the leadership of Dr. Malachi D. Owili.
“We started as a little cluster of people, with little scattered rooms to do some work. We were still on the Ministry of Health payroll. Mugambi, however, was on the University of Nairobi payroll.
“We had identified a place where we wanted to establish KEMRI and when I met President [Daniel] Moi, I appealed to him to consider our request.”
During that time, Koech realised how important networks and political connections were. Moi was then a young president with a desire to leave a legacy in education. Koech had established a friendship with Moi early in his presidency.
One day, Koech accompanied some senior government officials to State House in Nairobi. While there, Moi pulled him aside and said: “Koech, I am making an official trip to Japan. Is there anything you would wish for me to request in your area?”
Moi knew Koech liked medical research and specialised in health and science.
I said; “Sir, Mzee as you are aware, we are developing medical research in this country so if you can assist us… we need a medical research institute.”
The Japanese had already started funding medical research in Ghana at the Nokuchi Memorial Research Institute.
Koech had visited the Ghanaian institute established by the Japanese at the University of Accra. The centre is named Nokuchi, after a Japanese medical researcher who died of yellow fever.
It was developed by the Japan International Development Cooperation Agency (JICA).
Moi surprise from Japan
While others were queuing to see President Moi and beg for handouts, Koech was thinking about how to utilise Moi’s first official visit to Japan to get research funding.
He could use the visit to request for support in the development of medical and scientific research in Kenya.
Moi honoured his promise and the Japanese, in turn, agreed to fund KEMRI.
As soon as Moi returned to Kenya, he called Koech to deliver the great news.
“There was a lot of paperwork to be done. But by the end of 1979, we were sorted. The next dilemma was where the facilities and office would be located.
“We didn’t have one square inch in the entire republic to put up a medical research [institute]. So, we had been allowed to establish KEMRI but nowhere to build it.”
The Japanese couldn’t give money directly to KEMRI. They had no infrastructure, not even a bank account to receive the money.
The Japanese also operate differently. They cost the kind of work they are funding and then do the job for you.
“They don’t give you a cheque or transfer money into your account, which is very good. They will not blame you for the delays. They will not blame you for payment and then poor workmanship.
“They cost everything out from the beginning and then they tender it out. And, they hire people they know are going to do a good job.”
“We didn’t have any infrastructure of our own. We started lobbying for space and facilities.
“Fortunately, the government gave us the space where KEMRI is standing today. It was empty land then, an extension of the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital, which is the neighbour to the institute.
“People wanted to grab the land to put up a housing scheme, or to sell it. For us, we needed the land to develop medical research facilities and JICA started building immediately.”
KEMRI was built in two phases. Phase one was the central administration building plus the conference centre and the library. The second phase came in quick succession.
The Japanese finished the job two weeks ahead of schedule. By 1984 it had been officially completed and President Moi officially opened the facility.
“In 1984 I formally moved out of the university laboratory to establish my own lab at KEMRI but I continued with my teaching roles within the university. I officially vacated my office at the Ministry of Health’s Division of Vector Borne Diseases, which then was still based at Kenyatta National Hospital complex. At KEMRI for the first ten years, I would say I was playing the role of a scientist. I also ceded the day-to-day running of the laboratory in the University of Nairobi’s medical school’s Department of Immunology.”
In 1989, Koech was appointed the Chief Research Officer at KEMRI. On January 13, 1989, he was also appointed the third Director of the Institute and the Chief Executive Officer.
21-year stint at KEMRI
Koech is very proud of KEMRI. He describes it as the stone that the government almost rejected which became the cornerstone of health sciences and research in Africa.
KEMRI, where he served as CEO for 21 years and eight months emitted its own pains. He suffered professional humiliation and political mudslinging. He prayed and soldiered on. His most devastating experience was the rejection of KEMRON, a drug therapy he and KEMRI staff developed that is currently used globally in the management of HIV/AIDS.
Koech is pained by the vilification he underwent after KEMRI’S tenth-anniversary celebrations, on Wednesday, December 6, 1989. On that day, he spoke at length about the various research initiatives and achievements of KEMRI since the early 80s.
President Moi was the chief guest. Koech spoke about the discoveries in the management and treatment of diseases of poverty such as malaria, and HIV/AIDS. He told of the progress made with other diseases such as; Bilharzia, Schistosomiasis, and Leishmaniasis. He reminded the world that KEMRI oversaw the evaluation of the hepatitis vaccine in Kenya.
He then spoke about KEMRON, a drug KEMRI had developed to treat and manage HIV/AIDS. The media went to town with the claim that after all KEMRON couldn’t cure HIV/AIDS.
“All I said was that we had done more relating to HIV/AIDS. That we have a product and the people using it were responding very well. The media put us on the front pages. We only wanted to show that although the area of HIV/AIDS was new, we had achieved some modest results. I was vilified. Some said we were unable to say if or not we had found a cure for AIDS. I have never used the word cure in my research life. I had used the terms management/treatment which is not the same as cure. We can treat HIV/AIDS and opportunistic diseases but we can’t cure it for it is not curable.”
Koech explains that there are many ailments ranging from flu to diabetes that is treatable but incurable.
“The KEMRON controversy was the creation of the media. Controversy in research only exists where inventors quarrel. We knew the science of KEMRON. We tried to make the press understand it in vain.”
He says the KEMRON issue became poisoned by politics and propaganda: “These day’s people ask me where is KEMRON? And I tell them; ’You killed it and others took it.’
The patent for KEMRON expired in 1997. When I was asked if I wanted it renewed, I said since Kenyans weren’t bothered about it, let others take it. Produced in Switzerland, the drug is now called Imminoflex and is distributed worldwide and registered in 19 African countries. It is still used in the management of HIV/AIDS.”
Exit from KEMRI
Koech eventually left KEMRI, having set a record as the longest-serving CEO and parastatal head in Kenya. There were many international opportunities open for him after more than two decades at the helm of the leading research institution.
“I was CEO continuously despite many political wrangles. It was my desire however that whoever took over from me maintained the international linkages I had created. Over-reliance on government funding would kill KEMRI since the money is not enough to run the institute’s services for even a few days.”
His retirement didn’t come with the peace and tranquillity he had visualised. He was constantly harassed by the police and authorities. He had his properties auctioned and he was charged with abuse of public office and misappropriation of public resources. He lived in the constant shadow of police harassment with negative publicity. The childhood taunts had returned to haunt him in adulthood.
However, he soldiered on, determined to make good what he had initiated at KEMRI. He received a lot of support from friends and institutions. He followed his own passion: “Despite the jeers, humiliation and distractions, I am almost there. It has taken me about 31 years to prove my detractors wrong and produce a product that is global and can work. We should be launching this product by the end of this year, 2021. It will be an extremely simple and easy to administer the drug for the management of HIV/AIDS.”
Koech says he has been working on the product with 17 internationally recognised scientists. He says its manifestation will be earth-shaking.
“KEMRI heavily depends on the international community. I have spent close to 50 years in research. I have been able to publish in 270 different publications. One of the highest from an individual. I rank among the top 10 globally of the most published researchers with content worthy of mention.”
Life after KEMRI
After KEMRI, Koech established the Centre for Clinical and Molecular Sciences. This, he says, is an extent of what he was doing at KEMRI, but it’s now his own institution. He can conduct research at his own pace.
“Fortunately, I retained the linkage and networks I had when I was at KEMRI. These linkages came to my rescue. They have been very helpful especially with funding.”
“As a public servant, you are not the most likeable person. In the process of your work, you make decisions based on your judgement. I’m not a perfect employee, CEO or father. I’m not a perfect person. You make decisions that do not favour others. You base your decisions on your own personal judgement. You may break certain rules and regulations of the game. At times you get penalized for doing the right thing. Some of the decisions I have made before I will still make them today because I believe they are the best for humanity and science. The decisions I made at KEMRI all involved funding and finances. I have made my own errors in judgement. I take personal responsibility and I’m paying for it. I made them as an individual. I am so happy for what I have done all my life if this is the price, I have to pay for being a good scientist, good CEO and a good Kenyan then let it be.”
Koech says his spirit was never dampened. When he woke up from the ICU, what popped up in his mind is the name of the new product he intends to launch: “When you feel you have been abandoned that is the moment of enlightenment. Sleep is never sweet unless it is interrupted.”
The writer, Caleb Atemi, is a Biographer, Storyteller, Media Trainer and Mentor; [email protected]
Read PART ONE here:
After suffering a heart attack in old age and enduring abject poverty, calamity and sorrow in childhood, Davy Kiprotich Koech, a Harvard Professor and researcher extraordinaire is now fighting a six-year prison sentence after being convicted of corruption charges. His lawyers are seeking legal means of addressing the Sh19.6 million fine imposed on him otherwise he will go to jail at 70. This THREE PART series, tells you the story of a man who suddenly turned from a national hero, into a villain.
Read PART TWO here:
Prof. Davy Kiprotich Koech, a Harvard Professor and researcher extraordinaire survived on three meals a week, and almost lost his leg after an accident saw him spend three months in hospital under the care of cruel doctors. Part TWO of this series looks at the traumatic childhood experiences that shaped Koech’s life.
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