Uganda 15 years away from Covid jab - experts

Members of the Public Accounts Committee during a meeting with the scientists working on the creation of a Covid-19 vaccine in Parliament on March 20, 2023. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • After promising that they would have got a locally-made vaccine for coronavirus by the end of 2021, Ugandan scientists on the project now say the country requires 15-25 years to build capacity and be ready to produce jabs.

Uganda is years away from making its own Covid vaccine, the principal investigator has said, pointing out that countries manufacturing vaccines took anywhere between 15 to 25 years to build capacity.

In answer to questions by lawmakers about the up-to-date status of the nation’s effort at vaccine production and reasons for the delay, Dr Sheila Balinda, the principal investigator, said she discovered in conversations with counterparts during a travel to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (UK) that time mattered for preparations. 

Oxford, one of the world’s leading universities, working with AstraZeneca partner, developed a jab against the pandemic in a record 12 months when previous vaccine development and manufacture could last decades. 

“In interacting with these scientists, [I found that] they developed their backbone [for making the vaccine] over 20 years ago,” said Dr Balinda, a molecular virologist at Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI). 

She added: “They (University of Oxford scientists) actually have a wide range of vaccine products and so, we [Ugandan scientists] were starting from the beginning and we are 25 years behind … They (scientists) were actually amazed at the progress … we had made.” 

Ms Balinda said the next step would be testing their products in non-human primates after obtaining the right immune responses. 

The legislators seized on the revelation to question whether the Ugandan scientists, who previously promised a locally-made vaccine was on the cards, misled President Museveni who subsequently assured the country of the development. 

In comments during various televised addresses since Uganda confirmed Covid outbreak in March 2020, the President reported progress by Ugandan scientists in finding a vaccine which he in November 2021 proposed could be named Nalubale Dawa DN.

He invited Ugandans to suggest alternative names for the expected Ugandan-made vaccine that he assured would have been ready by the end of 2021. 

‘‘We are working on our vaccine. Actually our vaccine will be better than all those because it will cover all variants,’’ Mr Museveni said in June 2021.

To underline how distant Uganda likely is from developing a vaccine, Dr John Lubega, a professor of clinical pathology, said research shows that such initiatives can take up to 15 years and that “tireless efforts” by Ugandan scientists should be commended.

Like Dr Balinda, he offered sketchy details on the tangible achievements. With Dr Jennifer Serwanga, an assistant director (for immunology) at UVRI, disclosing that they embarked on the Covid vaccine research at the end of 2020, requiring a decade-and-a-half to build capacity theoretically would suggest Uganda could have its own jab, if at all, by 2035 at the earliest.

It remains unclear if Coronavirus, now globally tamed, would resurface as a health emergency by then or another epidemic could break out and find Uganda without vaccine, or no capacity to make one, as has been the case with Covid-19.

The pandemic killed more than 350 people in Uganda, which was comparably far fewer than the contagion’s ravage elsewhere, including in developing countries – a feat officials in Kampala attributed to institutional capacity and experience in handling epidemics alongside strictly enforced lockdowns. 

In yesterday’s appearance, Dr Serwanga said: “We have been able to grow and have two products. We followed the science since the virus has changed and we have strains which are worse and [are] escaping protection from the antibodies. We are already testing those in the mice.” 

The scientists were appearing before the MP Medard Sseggona-chaired Public Accounts Committee to appraise legislators on the vaccine efforts in which part of the Shs31b that the government allocated in the 2020/21 Financial Year was invested through the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovations.

MP Bukenya Michael (Bukuya) opened the line of questioning by asking the principal investigator to “give us an update on what stage of vaccine development they are [at]” following previous assurance by President Museveni that the scientists were on the cusp of a breakthrough.  

UVRI Executive Director Prof Pontiano Kaleebu, tasked by the President during a televised address, said “we are working on two vaccines for Covid-19. One is inactivated vaccine and the other one is using a vector, call it a vehicle to carry parts of Covid-19 virus”.

None of those has lifted beyond laboratory exercise, prompting MPs yesterday to ask if the President had been lied to.

“So, are these scientists saying that the President gave us lies after assurance that the vaccine is coming?” asked Mr Fredrick Angura, the Tororo County legislator.

Senior Presidential Advisor on vaccines Prof Vinard Nantulya addresses the Public Accounts Committee at Parliament on March 20, 2023. PHOTO/DAVID LUBOWA

Prof Vinard Nantulya, a senior presidential advisor on vaccines, informed lawmakers that he had previously advised President Museveni that Uganda would only make a vaccine after western nations with better technology and expertise had done so. 

“… what was important was to establish a national capacity to do this thing because Covid is not the last outbreak we are going to get …,” Prof Nantulya said, adding, “The president initially had been given the idea that the vaccine [was] coming, but you noticed that he changed [his remarks] and said ‘no, we are establishing a national capacity in case we get other outbreaks’.” 

In a rejoinder, former primary healthcare minister Dr Emmanuel Otaala, who now represents West Budama South constituency in the 11th Parliament, dismissed the professor’s comments as “ad hoc” and unhelpful.

Former Science, Innovation and Technology Minister, Dr Elioda Tumwesigye, publicly red-flag claims that Uganda could make a vaccine, telling a select parliamentary committee in February 2022 that scientists under the Presidential Scientific Initiative on Epidemic (PRESIDE) misinformed or provided inadequate information to the head of state.

His successor, Dr Monica Musenero, has been in the leading pack of experts giving assurance that Uganda’s journey to vaccine manufacture was unstoppable. She courted controversy when she superintended acquisition, at Shs8m each, of mice to be used in the experiments in the making of Coronavirus jabs. 

“Funding has been secured … and technical people from abroad have been in the country, shipment of equipment is going to begin. If everything goes well, within six months, we should be able to start supplying Ugandans with some vaccines,” she said during the June 6, 2021 commissioning of the Biological Drugs and mRNA (Messenger Rigonucliec Acid) vaccine facility in Matuga, Wakiso District.

The minister was expected at Parliament yesterday where the other scientists declared that Uganda was far from putting hands on a vaccine, but PAC chairperson Sseggona said she was meeting the President.

“Those challenges they are telling [us] that they are passing through, those don’t concern us. For us we have seen that they have delayed. The [team] told us that a vaccine takes 15 years, but also some of them made the effort to tell us what stages of production they are in,” Mr Sseggona said in post-committee sitting comment to NTV, our sister television station.

Museveni quotes on Covid-19 vaccine prospects

 “This selfishness in the world [where countries are refusing to share vaccines] is bad, but it is also good. It wakes up Africans... Our researchers are now entering stage five and by November, they will be in stage eight. I can assure you that by the end of 2021, we shall no longer be waiting for outsiders to rescue us from mass deaths.” June 27, 2021

President Museveni and his wife Janet arrive for the World Health Summit at  Munyonyo, Kampala, on June 27, 2021.  PHOTO/ COURTESY

‘‘We are working on our vaccine. Actually our vaccine will be better than all those because it will cover all variants [of Coronavirus].’’
June 18, 2021
“One of the things they (local scientists) were looking for was the green monkey cells which can grow well for the virus like corona. It is going to be the first time these cells are being used in a laboratory in Africa to multiply the virus for the vaccines.” July 7, 2021
“We shall not accept dependency. You must build an independent Uganda. We are working on the vaccine and treatment by ourselves.” July 19, 2022
“We invite friends and brothers to cooperate with us in the production of vaccines and pharmaceuticals for the improvement of global health.”
December 13, 2022