Are Ugandan scientists close to getting Covid-19 vaccine?

Saturday July 4 2020

A medical worker holds a vaccine before a

A medical worker holds a vaccine before a clinical trial at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa, on June 24 AFP PHOTO 

By TONNY ABET

Governments worldwide are working hard to revive their economies and return to the old normal, with an effective vaccine or drug against Covid-19 as their enabling tool.

With more than 10.5 million coronavirus confirmed cases and over half a million deaths reported globally in seven months, various people are trying to navigate their way out.

Although there have been concerns that a number of leaders in Africa, including Uganda, are using the pandemic as their cash cow and that some of the directives to curb the spread of the virus are insensitive to community needs, the deadliness of the disease is clear.

Africa is still the least affected region, with 3 per cent (318,432) of the global Covid-19 cases and about 1 per cent (6,340) of deaths.

Experts, however, say that in addition to low rate of diagnosis, the onset of the virus was delayed in the continent, but that the tide is rising with some of the African countries expected to face a huge peak in the near future.
A total of 902 cases have been confirmed in Uganda with 847 recoveries and no death reported.

President Museveni in his latest address to the nation hinted that the reopening of schools and operation of boda boda[motorcycle taxis] would have to wait until a vaccine is developed.

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The President has also often talked about local scientists working on a vaccine for Covid-19, and at one point claimed that the country could get the vaccine before everyone else.

“I am very hopeful on the front of the vaccine and treatment. There is a recent talk of the drug dexamethasone that is very abundant because our doctors have been using it as an anti-inflammatory drug to treat brain inflammation, allergy, asthma and other conditions. Our doctors are studying it and the search for the candidate drugs with anti-viral activities is in high gear. We have given them all the support,” Mr Museveni is quoted to have said during his address on June 22.

Dr Monica Musenero, an epidemiologist and senior presidential adviser on disease outbreaks, is coordinating scientists and institutions collaborating to develop a vaccine.

She told Saturday Monitor on Thursday that the country is in the preliminary stages of developing the much-needed Covid-19 vaccine.

Dr Musenero said Uganda’s scientists have lined up four vaccines that are being developed to avoid the risk of dependence on foreign countries.

“We have scientists from Makerere University, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, and Kampala International University, who have come on board, working together to develop Covid-19 vaccine,” she said.
She revealed that other institutions such as the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) and the Joint Clinical Research Centre (JCRC) are also involved.

“We have the expertise and facilities that can make the vaccine. We were only lacking some equipment that is being imported,” she added.

Prof Pontiano Kaleebu, the director of UVRI, said they are looking at two strategies to make sure Ugandans have the vaccine. Unlike Dr Musenero, Pof Kaleebu, however, believes that partnering with foreign scientists who are in late stages of developing the Covid-19 vaccine can give the country mileage on timely delivery of the vaccine.

“We are looking at two ways; the first one is to see how our scientists can develop the vaccine locally. The other way is to partner with foreign researchers who are developing the vaccine and we do the clinical trial in the country,” he said.

He said the institute will find a promising vaccine and start clinical trials by December.
Vaccine development
If the initiative to develop Covid-19 vaccine materialises, this will be the second disease the country’s scientists have worked towards developing vaccine for .

The vaccine against ticks, which is in the third phase of a clinical trial, is being developed by Dr Margaret Saimo-Kahwa, according to information from Makerere University College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and Biosecurity (Covab).

Dr Musenero said the country is not short of experts but “the confidence to step out and do it.”
“Covid-19 has taught us many things. Remember at first we were importing the personal protective equipment (PPEs), until a point when there was an outcry over shortage of the PPEs everywhere that we learnt we could make them ourselves,” she said.

Elsewhere in Africa
During Africa’s leadership in Covid-19 vaccine development and access online conference on June 24, developing own vaccine was one of the priority areas for the continent.

Although a proposal to partner with foreign research institutions developing the vaccines was suggested, many African leaders who participated seemed not to buy the idea.

A number of developed countries have already signed mega supply deals with companies and institutions whose Covid-19 vaccines are promising, meaning these countries will get the vaccine before other countries.

However, African leaders and civil society activists have raised the red flag saying the move workers against equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, especially for developing countries.

The meeting, which brought together African leaders, public health professionals, policymakers, pharmaceutical industry experts, among others, was to discuss a roadmap for the development of safe, effective, affordable, equitable and accessible Covid-19 vaccine in Africa, with the involvement of Africans.

Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, the chairperson of the African Union, who is also President of the Republic of South Africa, while opening the conference, emphasized the need to manufacture the vaccine in Africa.

President Ramaphosa said this will only be achieved with strong partnerships, cooperation and a sense of urgency among Africans.
“Success in developing and providing access to a safe vaccine requires an innovative and collaborative approach, with significant local manufacturing in Africa. We need to support the contribution of African scientists and healthcare professionals. We need to act with urgency,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

Dr John Nkengasong, the director of Africa Centre for Disease Control, said the onset of Covid-19 pandemic was delayed in Africa but the number of cases and deaths is increasing rapidly every day.

Dr Nkengasong warned the continent to be careful and prepare for a rise in the number of cases, as already observed in Latin America after easing of lockdowns.

He said the availability of a vaccine is the only solution that would allow African countries to return to a fully functional economy.

Securing sufficient vaccine supplies and removing barriers to vaccine rollout for the continent, according to Dr Nkengasong, requires mobilising financial capital to purchase enough vaccines, ensuring appropriate distribution, and manufacturing, including, enabling technology transfer to rapidly scale-up local manufacturing capacity on the continent.

He also challenged African governments to urgently develop supportive networks for rapid approval of deliveries, and addressing supply chain issues to pave way for access to Covid-19 vaccine for everyone.

PROGRESS
Presenting at the conference, Dr Richard Hatchett, Chief Executive Officer, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, highlighted that there are currently no vaccines being developed in Africa.

Dr Hatchett said the vaccine development partners are distributed in North America, Europe and Asia and no primary vaccine development currently in Africa.

He said the coalition is open to partner with research facilities in Africa to develop the vaccines.
Prof Sarah Anyang Agbor, Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology at the African Union proposed an urgent need to create innovative alliances that bring public and private stakeholders on the continental together.

tabet@ug.nationmedia.com

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