KEMRI scientists intensify search for COVID-19 vaccine in Kenya


FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a small bottle labelled with a
FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a small bottle labelled with a "Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine" sticker and a medical syringe in this illustration taken October 30, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Kenya may soon get a boost on the vaccine front following clinical trials of other COVID-19 vaccines that will begin in the next 3 months.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Alupe centre based in Busia is targeting vaccines from the US and China.

With hitches experienced in the acquisition of the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Kenya has been looking for options with scientists at KEMRI, Busia racing against time to ensure Kenya does not run out of options in vaccinating it’s citizens.

“The first option is to maintain the diplomatic pressure to ensure countries like Kenya get the vaccines they need for the second jab and also those who haven’t gotten vaccinated,” says Prof. Matilu Mwau, Deputy Director, KEMRI, Busia.

Challenges in supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute in India has pushed industry players to cast the net wider.

“The second option is for us to widen the search for other vaccines that may not be well known but are quite useful,” adds Prof. Mwau.

The team of researchers at the Alupe centre have set their sights on vaccines from the US and China.

“One of them is called Tonics, from an American based organization that has created a cowpox vectored vaccine… Cowpox is a pox virus vaccine like small pox; in this part of the world we may not have much experience with cowpox having eradicated it a long time ago but we are familiar with monkey pox…. Cowpox appears to be protective from monkey pox, and if its vectored with corona it may do two things for us; protect us from monkey pox and coronavirus…,” adds the deputy director, KEMRI, Busia.

This is not the first time KEMRI is doing clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine. The institute was instrumental in ensuring the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine before it’s authorisation for use in Kenya. The trial was hosted at the Kilifi-based KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, a long standing collaboration between KEMRI, University of Oxford and the Wellcome Trust in the UK.

“A vaccine from China manufactured by an organization known us Anhui Zhifei and we are hoping to start clinical trials before the tonic vaccine,” he added.

Preliminary documentation has already been done for the two vaccines and clinical trials to ascertain safety will begin before the end of the year.  However preliminary data from the phase 1 trials will be available from mid next year.

“By the end of the year there will be more vaccines that will reduce pressure of supply from the well known vaccines like AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna among others,” says Prof. Mwau

Scientists at KEMRI hope that the clinical trials which are likely to start in late august, if successful, will deal with the issue of vaccine inequity once and for all. However, in the short term, the options of mixing vaccine is still  on the table.

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