Inside the UVRI, MoH fight over Ebola testing

Some Ebola survivors receive discharge certificates at Mubende Regional Referral Hospital on October 6 in Mubende District. PHOTO | DAN WANDERA

The disagreement between Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) and the Health Ministry over disease surveillance mandates and associated deals, has deepened, sparking confusion in Ebola Virus testing.

The disagreement, which has been brewing over the years, according to sources in government, explains the move by the Health Minister, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, to block the UVRI from conducting research on Ebola patients and overseeing the testing of Ebola at a time when the country is struggling to contain the outbreak.

“There has been a conflict between UVRI and Uganda National Health Laboratory Services (UNHLS)/Central Public Health Laboratories (CPHL), which is located in Butabika (Kampala),” one of the sources in the government told Monitor on Sunday.

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The source added: “The UNHLS have the autonomy over laboratory services and surveillance but also UVRI claims they are the ones in charge of viral outbreaks. So the mandates are conflicting. That is why UNHLS/CPHL is saying they want to take up their mandate fully”.

The UVRI was central in detecting the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Mubende last month, the action which paved way for the government’s response to combat the disease.

Dr Susan Nabadda, the head of UNHLS, said: “CPHL is mandated to providing stewardship for the National Health Laboratory network and contributing to the prevention and controlling of diseases and promoting health to guide the prevention of disease and promotion of health in Uganda through early detection of the disease burden in order to achieve overall sustainable development.” 

Mr Denis Patrick Alibu, the secretary general of the Uganda Medical Laboratory Technology Association, told this newspaper that capacity is not an issue here but the conflicting mandates.   

“Both of them have the capacity to test Ebola. Ideally, UVRI should work hand in hand with CPHL,” Mr Alibu said. 

CPHL is a fully-fledged facility housing laboratories for different diseases in Kampala, according to information from management but their experience of around 30 years in surveillance and working as a reference laboratory, cannot be compared with that of UVRI, a facility established in 1936. 

However, Dr Aceng in a meeting with the Ebola taskforce on October 6 at Mubende District Council Hall, ordered the UVRI staff to vacate the Mubende Ebola Treatment Unit immediately.

“I now state it clearly that if you are the UVRI staff and still here, please go. No research will be conducted without my knowledge, never! And it has ended,” Dr Aceng said.

The government on October 3 established a mobile laboratory in Mubende to reduce the turnaround time for Ebola tests in the country, which were two to 3 days. 

The Ebola tests were initially done at the UVRI laboratories in Entebbe, over 130 kilometers away from Mubende, the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epicentre. This caused delays. 

Under normal situations, UVRI would supervise the new laboratory and guide on quality. 

Prof Pontiano Kaleebu, the UVRI director, when asked by our reporter about the orders from the minister, said: “I don’t want to talk about that issue.”

But a highly-placed source in government, who is familiar with the development, said: “UVRI is no longer the reference laboratory for Ebola testing because of the politics. It is now CPHL in charge.”

Another source said: “When the UVRI detected Ebola, the officials at the ministry ordered that the information shouldn’t come out until the President is informed about it. And it was the Ministry to declare the outbreak.”

But the information was leaked and this publication was able to break the story before the official announcement by the Ministry, an action which sources within the Ministry said angered the officials.