The research agency leading Kenya’s Covid-19 fight is virtually running on empty, its managers have revealed.
The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) is so broke that it cannot replenish Covid-19 testing materials, protective gear and the much-needed reagents.
Director-General Yeri Kombe, in a report to the National Assembly Health Committee, says they have exhausted the Sh158 million Covid-19 funds they received from the government.
He told the committee that the institute has reallocated some of the money it had budgeted for research to respond to the pandemic.
The agency, which has been embroiled in turf wars with the National Influenza Centre, is exploring other ways of supporting the proposed Covid-19 research areas, especially those of immediate impact.
Kemri is now seeking Sh950 million to hire personnel, buy equipment and fund other programmes.
In order to increase capacity, screening kits production and vaccine development, Kemri is looking for Sh250 million to procure equipment like freezers, autoclave, DNA synthesisers, protein synthesisers, guillotines and illimuna sequencers.
Some Sh540 million will go into buying coronavirus reagents and screening materials.
“A lot of reagents and materials are being used in screening and testing of the virus. The institute has utilised most of the available resources and there is a need to procure more laboratory and personal protective equipment,” Prof Yombe says in the report.
Kemri is also looking for Sh100 million to hire more staff after getting government’s green light to employ 62 more scientists.
“Apart from the internal funding reallocation, the management will be approaching the Kenya National Research Fund, the East Africa Research Fund, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative and other donors to bridge the gap,” Kemri’s budget proposal reads in part.
The institute is seeking to buy more N95 face masks and other personal protective equipment.
Prof Kombe said the last of the remaining 50 pieces will be used up in the next few days and that there is a need to restock urgently. He decried the unpredictable supply of consumables and other materials used to carry out tests.
“Kemri was supplied with 1,344 kits for the automated analysis. The institute is waiting for 26,000 kits from the Clinton Foundation and the Ministry of Health. The kits will be used up within a day, considering the current trend of testing,” he said.
Kemri has laboratories in Kilifi, Nairobi, Kericho, Kisumu and Busia with a capacity of testing 100,000 samples per week.
This means that, even if the kits are released today, they can only last a day. Kemri has tested over 8,500 samples since the first case was reported.
The testing is highly automated and employs Cobas 8800 and PCR machines. Nine out of 14 laboratories in the country with these equipment are in Kemri.
Prof Yombe also raised concerns over the delays in freight and clearance of items and equipment.
“Important items and equipment are taking long to be cleared at the port, thus delaying some of the activities,” he said.
Amid the challenges, Kemri has received a request from the Pharmacy and Poisons Board to evaluate Covid-19 test kits that may be used in the country.
“In addition, the institute has also been nominated by Africa CDC as a centre of excellence in evaluation of Covid-19 diagnostics in the continent.
In this respect, Kemri is already involved in the validation and evaluation of commercial and other kits,” states the report.
The agency has also initiated the development of a Covid-19 vaccine candidate.
“Kemri has commenced exploring efficacy of its in-house product Zudepex and other natural products against Covid-19,” says the report.
Zudepex is an antiviral drug that is used to treat herpes. It was patented in 2016 and registered as a herbal product by the PPB the same year.
It is available in powder form packed in 250-gramme containers.