The hidden hands in Covidex fights

Sunday July 18 2021
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The National Drug Authority (NDA) recently gave Ugandans a green light to use Covidex as a supporting treatment for Covid-19 and other viral infections. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA/FILE

By Felix Ainebyoona
By Tonny Abet

The deepening rift between Mbarara University of Science & Technology (MUST) and Prof Patrick Ogwang over Covidex has at its centre, work spats, use of $7 million (Shs24.6b) grant, and expectations of windfall from brisk sales of the new drug, sources at the institution have revealed.

Covidex is a locally-made herbal medicine which the National Drug Authority (NDA) approved last month as a supportive treatment for Covid-19.

Dr David Nahamya, the secretary to NDA, while declaring the approval of the medicine on June 29, said they assessed and granted permission to Jena Herbals Ltd to produce the medicine. Jena Herbals Ltd is owned by Prof Ogwang.

But on June 14, upon learning that Jena Herbals was already manufacturing and making monies from the medicine, which has a very high market demand, both the university and NDA issued tough statements, calling for immediate halt of production and sale of the medicine.

Dr Medard Bitekyerezo, the chairman  of NDA board, said they reacted that way because as regulators, they wanted to ensure safety of the medicine. 

“We wanted him [Prof Ogwang] to bring his paperwork to NDA and other things to be verified and we did not have dosage of Covidex. We have only been notified about this drug. We have allowed the drug to be on shelves of drugs shops and pharmacies but we are saying more research is being done and we have told people that this is not a definitive treatment for Covid-19,” Dr Bitekyerezo said.

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Dr Medard Bitekyerezo.

But Prof Ogwang said he had to seek President Museveni’s intervention at some point during the approval processes because of the intense pressure NDA was mounting on him. 

Some critics also say NDA favours or is manipulated by pharmaceutical companies and foreign investors who don’t want to see development in herbal medicines. 

But NDA denied such claims, saying it strongly supports local innovations in herbal medicines and that a special unit has been dedicated to support development and regulation of herbal medicines. 

Whereas NDA asked Prof Ogwang to cease sales until the medicine has completed the approval process, a furious Prof Celestino Obua, the Vice-Chancellor of MUST, penned a quick but stinging statement, asking Jena Herbals to stay away from Covidex.

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Prof Patrick Ogwang. PHOTO/COURTESY

Prof Obua said Covidex was developed by the university under Pharm-Biotechnology and Traditional Medicine Centre (PHARMBIOTRAC) and that the institution has the intellectual property rights (IPRs). He didn’t declare when they got the IPRs. 

The university lawyer, Mr Timothy Mugumya, when asked whether the institution holds the said IP rights, said he couldn’t comment about the issue, but hinted that he doesn’t “want to be seen to deviate from the statement” by Prof Obua.

According to sources at the university, the dispute over the ownership of Covidex stems from spats between Prof Obua and Prof Ogwang. 

But Prof Obua said he has nothing against Prof Ogwang but that he wants things to be done in the right way.

“Any third party interested in production, distribution or sale of Covidex herbal medicine without prejudice is hereby asked to desist from negotiating any deals with any individual, other than the university authority, who is the holder of the intellectual property rights for this product, and for the avoidance of any doubts, in this case Mbarara University of Science and Technology authority,” he said.

But a highly placed source at the institution said Prof Obua is furious because he is faced with audit queries over the $7m (about Shs24.6b) they got for research and development of herbal medicines from the World Bank through the government.

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Prof Celestino Obua, the Mbarara University of Science & Technology Vice Chancellor. PHOTOS/ COURTESY

The source said Prof Obua reportedly made an agreement on behalf of MUST while getting monies to present three lines of production of traditional medicine which they do not have by now.

“When MUST was given a centre of excellence called PHARMBIOTRAC, part of it [the agreement] was that it should have at least three production lines of traditional medicines by the end of the year,” the source said. 

Last week, the lawyers of Prof Ogwang also accused the university of using three products that were developed by their clients to solicit funds. The lawyers, Omongole & Co. Advocates in their July 9 letter said the university’s move is illegal and fraudulent. They specifically warned Prof Obua to desist from using their client’s products to solicit funding from government.

“We deem that this is illegal and fraudulent action by the university and urge the university not to go ahead with the said action without the authorisation of our client or Prof Ogwang personally,” the lawyers wrote. The lawyers insisted that Covidex is owned by Prof Ogwang, and not the university. 

The university officials and Prof Obua have not given a clear response to claims made by Prof Ogwang’s lawyers and queries over the $7 million grant. But on June 13, four days after Prof Ogwang’s lawyers threatened to sue the university, another group of lawyers said they are also suing NDA for giving the green light to Jena Herbals Ltd to manufacture and sell Covidex.

The plaintiffs, Advocates for People (AFP), and Mr Musa Muhammed Kigongo, the director and secretary general of AFP, petitioned the High Court in Kampala and are, among others, seeking remedies to quash the said NDA decision.

“The decision and procedure followed by the 1st respondent to approve Covidex as a supportive drug in the management of viral infections, including Covid-19, among others, and authorising the 2nd respondent to produce, sell and distribute the said drug whereas it is not the rightful owner or holder of the patent, is not only illegal, procedurally improper but also prejudicial to public interests and tax payers,” the petitioners contend in their documents before court.

Mr Abiaz Rwamwiri, the NDA spokesperson, said no one had yet served them with intention to sue and that the authority is innocent because it is not an intellectual property agency.

“Our regulatory role is to ensure that the drugs on Ugandan market are safe, of good quality and efficacious. We are not an intellectual property agency, so if anyone has issues with ownership of any product, they know who to sue…,” Mr Rwamwiri said.

Intellectual property rights are granted in the country after registering details about the product with the Uganda Registration Services Bureau. 

Meanwhile, Prof Ogwang has placed a notice of its trademark in the Uganda Gazette. The notice, which was placed in the June 28 issue, will run for two months to allow any member of the public who opposes the registration of Covidex trademarks to raise their grounds. 

Still in their law suit, the petitioners argue that on June 14, Prof Obua, clearly stated in a press statement that the university is the intellectual property holder of Covidex.

Earlier, Prof Obua said the university allowed Prof Ogwang to carry out investigation on the treatment of viral infections under PHARMBIOTRAC at the Faculty of Medicine at MUST.

“Prof Ogwang is a member of MUST; he would not be called a professor if he was on the street, so he is a member of the university. Prof Ogwang applied to investigate that medicine through the university,” Prof Obua said.

“My statement is that it is the Government of Uganda that funded its development. It must also be taken into account by you and everybody else. Yes, the government is promoting it and the government is promoting institutions and individuals, [Prof] Ogwang is a member of MUST. He has not disowned the fact that he is a member of MUST.

“We have not refuted the fact that this medicine is being developed, we are proud and very proud that MUST is supporting the effort to have clear treatment of the population from this killer disease.”

Asked about patent rights, Prof Obua said the matter will be handled between the university and Prof Ogwang since he is a member of the university.  

Prof Obua said whether Covidex is on the market or not, “of course, there are pressures and we should also be cognisant of the fact that people are desperate.”  

“If he has done so [applied for] and he has been given that clearance, we are happy as a university because he is following the procedures, the very thing I have talked about. He is following procedures that should be done. Get clearance from NDA, NDA has given temporally clearance, is saying before we can give you full clearance, go and conduct a clinical trial,” Prof Obua said.

Another source at the university said: “Covidex would have been the best thing for the university [to give accountability for the grants] but Prof Ogwang separately got $70,000 from the World Bank to make Covidex.”

Prof Ogwang also revealed that the former minister for Science and Technology, Dr Ellioda Tumwesigye, gave him money to develop a Covid-19 remedy. On his part, Dr Tumwesigye advised MUST to stop colliding with Prof Ogwang but rather support him to do more research to get tablets and capsules from his innovation.

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Former Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Elioda Tumwesigye. PHOTO/FILE

Dr Tumwesigye said Prof Ogwang was given Shs300m in two instalments. 
“I think as of now that should not derail us. We are all working for the government. What is crucial is to save lives. In fact in my interest, they should stop bickering. Let them now focus on looking for other products because the virus is changing everyday, rather than being divided in pettiness, let them come and support more innovations. We have so many herbal medicines that in combination can be able to cure us from this Covid and other diseases. So, they should not waste their resources and time fighting trying to out-talk each other,” Dr Tumwesigye said.

“Let us now focus on supporting Prof Ogwang other than undermining him, support his team to get more formulas to improve because we could even get tablets, capsules, we can get substitutes for children.”

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My statement is that it is the Government of Uganda that funded its development. It must also be taken into account by you and everybody else. Yes, the government is promoting it and the government is promoting institutions and individuals, [Prof] Ogwang is a member of MUST.

He has not disowned the fact that he is a member of MUST,’’ Prof Celestino Obua, the Vice-Chancellor of MUST

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