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Kenya to establish a state-of-the-art infectious disease research facility that can benefit the entire continent
By Gitonga Njeru | VOL.12 May ·2020-05-22
Kenyan Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe (middle) announces the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the country on March 13 (XINHUA)

Boris Kimani Njoroge, 40, is lucky to be alive and safe from the COVID-19 disease. He spent several weeks in quarantine after returning to Kenya from affected countries abroad. The farmer and father of two was among the 600,000 travelers who had to go through mandatory screening and quarantine at Kenya's major international airports from late January to April 1, according to Kenya's Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

"I was tested and confirmed that I am free from the disease and that really made me happy. The Ministry of Health allowed me to go home after a few weeks of quarantine and two tests that showed my negative status," said Njoroge.

The country's ability to test people like Njoroge will get a big boost in future.

China recently provided Kenya $80.3 million for the construction of a 21-story research center for infectious diseases such as the COVID-19 pandemic, tuberculosis, HIV, malaria and sexually transmitted diseases. The facility is 100 percent Chinese funded, which includes the equipment, with construction scheduled to commence in late April. It will be located on a 1-acre (0.4 hectare) piece of prime land on the outskirts of the Nairobi city center.

Focused research

The construction of the facility and choosing Kenya as the location were decided on by African Union (AU) members, with advice from the World Health Organization (WHO). This is partly because Kenya is the regional headquarters of most United Nations and other humanitarian organizations.

"China has already provided $80.3 million toward the construction of the facility. It will also be part of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), and will serve the entire continent. This is a big breakthrough and it will go a long way in drug and vaccine research on some of the diseases that are affecting humankind," said Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Health Mutahi Kagwe.

He said the decision by African states (to proceed with the research center) comes at a time when the pandemic is impacting the entire world.

"A special research unit on all the major infectious diseases will be set up once the facility is complete and will consist of Kenyan and Chinese scientists," said Kagwe.

According to Patrick Amoth, Acting Director General of the Ministry of Health, the facility, which is expected to be completed by August 2021, will be used to combat future disease outbreaks.

"Part of the reason we are building the facility is to prevent future disease outbreaks such as the current situation of COVID-19," said Amoth. The state-of-the-art facility will also have surveillance and monitoring mechanisms and it is expected that a lot of research will be conducted on new drugs and future vaccines for potential pandemics. Amoth said COVID-19 came as a surprise and Africa needs to be better prepared, adding that the facility will be the only one of its kind in Africa.

"As a country, we [Kenya] will also be part of a WHO partnership researching the anti-malaria drug chloroquine and its effectiveness in curing the coronavirus. So, it's a plus for us as a country. Most infectious disease research programs on the continent will be located at this facility," said Amoth.

According to Amoth, the facility will also do extensive research on other diseases such as influenza, rabies, pneumonia and a number of neglected diseases.

Apart from disease research, the facility will also provide about 15,000 direct and indirect jobs, not just in Kenya but also across the continent, said Amoth.

"It comes at a time when the continent is actually in great need of health workers and Kenya will be hiring several thousand of them in the next few days", said Naomi Rono, a policy expert and economist with the World Bank Group.

Already, Kenya recently announced that it is in the process of hiring over 6,000 health workers to battle coronavirus, mostly doctors, nurses and clinical officers.

"We will hire the workers within the next few days and we have to face the reality of preparing for the worst as we cannot predict what pandemics like COVID-19 can bring. We hope that the worst does not happen though," said Kagwe at a media conference in April.

Better prepared

Kenya will be releasing locally manufactured testing kits for COVID-19 in the next few weeks, and is planning the launch of COVID-19 vaccine and drug trials.

The kits will be distributed to relevant companies and government departments in a move aimed at combating this highly infectious disease. They will be manufactured and released by the country's major scientific research organization known as the Kenya Medical Research Institute, said Kagwe.

"These are some of the equipment that [in the future] we will be able to produce in large numbers once the state-of-the-art [research center] facility is complete. To be able to produce our own equipment in order to deal with future epidemics is important," he said.

Although China will fund the entire initial process of establishing the research center, future projects, such as manufacturing of medical equipment, will be fully Kenyan-owned once the facility is nationalized by the Kenyan Government.

Kenyan virologist Omu Anzala said that the facility will be able to compete with agencies such as the National Institute of Health in the United States, the George Institute for Global Health in the United Kingdom, and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research.

Major stakeholders in this facility will be the AU, the Africa CDC, and the Chinese Government. Kenya's economic growth is set to shrink to 3.6 percent against an initial prediction of 6 percent earlier this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Bank.

The country still remains Africa's sixth-largest economy according to the World Bank, but the entire global economy is slowly heading into a recession this year, according to insiders. The WHO predicts that the pandemic is expected to increase in Africa in coming weeks and has asked governments on the continent to brace for the worst.

(Print Edition Title: Being Prepared)

* Reporting from Kenya

* Comments to zanjifang@chinafrica.cn

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