State plan that could kill Kemri

The agency provides over 70 per cent of all Covid-19 testing in the public sector, but this could grind to a halt in about a month.

The intrigues surrounding expenditure of Covid-19 funds have deepened after it emerged that Afya House has its sights set on a fresh venture that would cripple the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri).

At least Sh300 million has already been diverted towards the establishment of a new institution that will take over core functions of Kemri.

“The Ministry of Health in conjunction with the World Bank has embarked on the establishment and construction of the Kenya Centers for Disease Control (KCDC),” wrote Health Principal Secretary Susan Mochache to section heads on July 7.

The funds are part of the $1.3 billion (Sh138 billion) loan from the World Bank for the Kenya Covid-19 Emergency Response Project.

Kemri is yet to receive funding to respond to the pandemic despite the National Assembly Health Committee directing that it should be financed adequately.

The agency provides over 70 per cent of all Covid-19 testing in the public sector, but this could grind to a halt in about a month.

In what may be the biggest blow so far, Kemri has also lost the support of its main benefactor, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC).

"Some of the CDC Kenya programmes will move to the US Embassy in 2021 or 2022,” a CDC Kenya spokesperson told The Standard in an email.

The spokesperson said the development was mutually agreed on and planned between the two institutions, adding that CDC Kenya would continue to engage with Kemri.

"The transition is an important step for Kemri as it moves on the pathway to self-reliance. This move has been planned for a few years and is unrelated to our relationship with Kemri. CDC will continue to have a presence at its own offices co-located at Kemri headquarters for the foreseeable future."

Affected experts

And although the CDC says the changeover has been successful so far, efforts by Kemri to absorb the affected experts whose contracts end in September have been thwarted by Afya House.

"This is to convey the Cabinet secretary’s instructions that you suspend the recruitment to allow for further instructions and streamlining of the process,” wrote Ms Mochache to Kemri in May.

On Friday, Kemri Director-General Yeri Kombe refused to comment on these developments and instead directed us to the Ministry of Health.

Our inquiries to Mochache have gone unanswered but sources in the ministry indicate that failure to absorb the affected Kemri workers could have an adverse effect on the already overwhelmed national Covid-19 testing response.

And as expected, there are misgivings about the timing of this latest initiative. "Whatever the motive, with an ongoing pandemic it is not the time to divert funds and attention to new adventures,” said a senior official at the National Influenza Centre, another agency in the crosshairs of Afya House bureaucrats.

It is also not clear why Afya House needs a new building for the proposed KCDC, which the PS said was originally called the National Public Health Institute (NPHI).

In 2015, the Ministry of Health opened a new Sh900 million building funded by the US CDC at Kenyatta National Hospital grounds to house the NPHI.

The NPHI is an international project of the US CDC, which is in the process of establishing a chain of similar institutions across Africa and in other developing countries.

During a February meeting with CDC, Abel Nyakiongora from the Health ministry said the NPHI was part of an ongoing bilateral strategic dialogue between Kenya and the US.

It is also seen as the US' response to growing Chinese influence in the continent’s health sector through the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), a unit of the African Union.

In March, the Kenya Government announced that China will be putting up a Sh8.3 billion 21-storey building in Nairobi to host one of five Africa CDC regional hubs.