Microscopy Inefficient, Still The Gold Standard Malaria Test -More Data Needed For Primaquin Drug

Participants at a past Malaria Field Day event in Malindi, Kenya. PHOTO| GEOFFREY KAMADI

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Concerns that the gains made in combating malaria may have plateaued over the last four years, is well captured in the WHO’s World Malaria Report. The report notes that of the 400,000 deaths in 2019 attributed to the disease, 90% occurred in Africa.

And fears that the Covid-19 pandemic could be playing a part in preventing patients from seeking medical care, is disconcerting to say the least.

It is known for instance, that some patients would forego seeking medical attention on the suspicion that they might be exhibiting symptoms associated with Covid-19. This of course precludes them from receiving important malaria intervention at a given health facility.

Test is Affordable

Long regarded as the gold standard test for the presence of malaria parasites in their early stages of development, microscopy is not all that reliable – at least going by recent studies in Kenya.  

The techniques basically entails the examination of a drop of blood smear on a microscope slide for the malaria causing parasite.

This study was conducted jointly by the WHO and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in 2019. It pointed out gaps that may exist when it came to using the microscopy in identifying the malaria parasite.

The clinical study was conducted in the Busia in Western Kenya – a malaria endemic region. The study began in 2016 before concluding in August 2019.

Even so, Protus Omondi, a researcher with KEMRI hastens to clarify that the study looked specifically at the malaria transmission stages.

These are the sexual stages of parasite development, otherwise known as the gametocyte stage, “which are also not usually targeted by the commonly used antimalaria drugs,” says Omondi, who is pursuing his PhD studies in Japan.

As to the question whether microscopy as a technique should be discouraged, given its inadequacies, Omondi says not so fast.

“Microscopy is still the gold standard, or the recommended tool, for detecting malaria parasite in the clinical setting, as it is still accurate and economical in detecting other stages-asexual [of the parasite development] which are usually responsible for malaria symptoms,” he explains.

Inefficient

What make the technique particularly inefficient, is the fact that gametocytes are known to circulate among populations, albeit in very low levels, even after the administration of malaria treatment following a microscopy test.

What this means is that the patient remains a carrier of gametocytes long after treatment. In other words, endemicity of malaria will still exists in a given population.

“We were able to find out that even after treatment, children still carry transmission stages which may facilitate continued transmission in the region after treatment, because mosquitoes are always present in the region,” he explains.

He maintains that when detecting gametocytes, microscopy is not ideal. This is because the technique is not sensitive enough to identify the stages of parasite development, despite the fact that these stages remain are responsible for disease transmission.

It is recommended that gametocyte tests be conducted during treatment.

More Data Needed

On the other hand, drugs that can clear parasite transmission should also be incorporated into the normal regimen to block malaria transmission efficiently, according to Omondi.

What Omondi is talking about is the drug Primaquin, that has direct effect on gametocytes. However, the only limiting factor going the Primaquin route is the absence of enough data, supporting what scientists have been able to observe.

“You need to do more in order to generate data,” he says.

All of the people surveyed in the WHO/ KEMRI clinical study had uncomplicated malaria, 85% percent of whom were found to harbor gametocytes.

No Protection for the Elderly amid Covid-19 Pandemic

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Agnes Kariuki, team leader of the Kibera Day Care for the Elderly, demonstrates how hand washing should be done. The organisation donates foodstuff to the elderly in the slums. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI.

There were only 687 individuals aged 100 years and above in Kenya, according to the census conducted in 2019. This figure is included in the 400,000 persons aged over 80 years– or 0.0085% of the country’s total population of 47 million people.

This is the age range in which the fatality rate of Covid-19 rises sevenfold to 15%, according to data based on 44,000 Covid-19 cases in China. What this means is that the highly virulent disease could decimate this tiny population in no time, should the country experience the scourge to a fraction of a degree of what is taking place in some of the developed countries.

No Legislation

This is especially the case given that what would have militated against the pandemic, such as a robust health infrastructure, is either woefully inadequate or non-existent at all.

Even so, the old population has been finding itself more and more on the fringes of society. It is fast becoming a marginalized group in Kenya.

Yet, unlike other vulnerable categories such as orphaned children, women, people living with disabilities, indigenous communities and the youth, this segment of the society is not protected by law.

Attempts in the past to come up with strategies and policies to this end, both at national and regional levels, have been half-hearted at best and yielded zero results at worst.

For example, a bill known as the Care and Protection of Older Members of Society Bill, has never moved past its second reading in Kenya’s parliament. In other words, no policy, legislation or strategy exists that would otherwise safeguard the rights and welfare of the elderly in the country.

In addition, only two member states of the African Union (AU) – Benin and Lesotho – have signed and ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older Persons. The Protocol was adopted in 2016.

Erastus Maina (L), the Kenya Country Programme Coordinator, HelpAge International with Mr. Kinuthia Wamwangi, HelpAge International Ambassador for older people in Kenya. The international NGO has come up with guidelines to help old people protect themselves against the pandemic. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI.

At least 15 AU countries need to be signatories as well as ratify the Protocol, for it to become part and parcel of the laws of individual member states. This apparent hesitancy by African countries is viewed by many as unhelpful in terms of advancing old people’s welfare.

No Safety Nets

At another level, the extended family unit which provided protection and a sense of security to its elderly members in African societies, is being eroded – if not already.

Along with this erosion is the chipping away of the elevated and esteemed status aged people once enjoyed in Africa. They were cherished and revered. This is no longer necessarily the case.

The economic realities of the day have compelled the young members of the community to move out looking for work in big cities and towns. This in turn has undermined the once-secure and cohesive family bonds.

The old are therefore left behind in their rural settings, with no one to look after them. Some instances actually demand that they take care of their grandchildren, even as their parents are working in urban centres.

Old people feel discriminated against. They cannot find jobs, making it difficult for them to earn a living. Antipathy against them is turning into hatred, something which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is high time this segment of society, which in many ways is a treasure to have, be enshrined in legislation. This is the only way that their welfare, which includes the right to health can be protected.

Behind the Curve – Lessons for Africa from Europe’s Late COVID-19 Response

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Before boarding a matatu ( a common public transportation in Kenya), the passenger’s hands have to be sanitized. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI.

People in Africa are aghast at the grim corona virus situation unfolding in Europe and America. If the health systems of the so-called First World cannot sustain the strain visited upon them by the COVID-19 global pandemic, what then for the rickety infrastructure in Africa?

“If what is happening in Europe were to take place here,” said one pub patron in earnest, a few days before the 7pm-5am curfew was enforced “we will all be dead,” adding in an attempt at dry humour, “at least my favourite drink will be in here,” motioning at- and rubbing his belly with the palm of his hand.

But it might already be taking place, for all we know. Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary, Mr. Mutahi Kagwe came out on April 2nd, warning Kenyans to brace themselves for the worst, after the country’s recorded cases climbed to 110 with three deaths.

No wonder, the apprehension is all too palpable. And so is the frustration borne out of a lockdown meant to stem the spread of the deadly disease, but has since paralyzed the nation.

However, it ought not be this way, not least given that the continent had ample time to learn. It also had the opportunity to prepare for what could otherwise degenerate quickly into a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. Scientists agree.

What to Do?

This may seem obvious to say but unfortunately many European countries in particular have been really behind the curve on this

Professor Kevin Marsh

First and foremost, the number of transmission taking place on the continent need to be known, according to Professor Kevin Marsh, Senior Advisor at the African Academy of Sciences.

“This may seem obvious to say but unfortunately many European countries in particular have been really behind the curve on this,” said Marsh, during a webinar hosted by the AAS last week, looking at the research and development opportunities on the continent that the COVID-19 presented.

Many people are skeptical about the low COVID-19 figures reported on the continent. They suspect that the lack of testing could be a factor.

However, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) has begun testing for SARS-COV2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease. Even so, they are using manual testing at the moment.

“Very shortly, high throughput assays will come into use, with a capacity of thousands of tests,” KEMRI assured the public via twitter. These tests, the Institute explained further, can provide at least 12,000 test results a day.

Surveillance

The Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company is installing hand washing points in public areas like the markets. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI.

Surveillance of cases is another important step to be taken according to Marsh. He stresses the need for rapid, planned surveillance, ideally with shared agreed protocol so that they can be comparable.

One model is to have population surveys based around areas of known cases and then to have them conducted in controlled areas.

The reason for this is “that if, maybe, there are more transmissions than we are aware of, it may be that there is little transmission,” he said, before emphasizing, “whichever the case, it is essential we know this now.”

Investigators have been accused in the past for not sharing their findings with colleagues. This should not be the case at this time, given the magnitude of the problem we are facing. The urgency of the situation demands the sharing of data, which will assist in coming up with models, to help combat it more effectively.

“I think all the data needs to be made available in real time, so that different modeling can be taken,” urged Marsh.

Large Trials

At another level, the setting up of large and pragmatic trials, both for treatment and potential prevention will go a long way, which will look at drugs, vaccines and other interventions.

And, in the wake of the emergency situation that the COVID-19 now presents, ethical reviews should take a much shorter time than is usually case. These reviews take weeks and months on the continent.

One way of doing this, suggests Marsh, is to establish a credible, full time expert group drawn from across the continent and beyond. The decisions of this group would be acceptable by other ethical committees.

With a weak healthcare infrastructure that can ill withstand the COVID-19 onslaught ravaging parts of the First World, Africa cannot afford to sit back and wait. Action is needed and needed fast.

Re-positioning Drugs against Malaria Show Promise – Is the Late Professor Calestous Juma’s Vision Finally Coming True?

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Professor Jennifer Orwa, Assistant Director, Research Development and Knowledge Management at KEMRI, delivering the closing remarks at the end of the 10th KEMRI Annual Scientific and Health Conference in February, 2020 in Nairobi. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI.

I had the privilege of sitting through a scientific lecture delivered by the late Professor Calestous Juma of the Harvard Kennedy School in Nairobi in 2013, at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (now the Kenyatta International Convention Centre).

The esteemed professor spoke passionately of a promising new research approach in the biomedical and pharmaceutical world. Scientists were looking at new ways of using affordable, existing drugs to treat various types of cancer.

But even more interesting was the fact that this treatment was administered using very low-cost, available drugs that are off patent.

Professor Calestous Juma.

“But even more interesting,” pointed out the Professor “was the fact that this treatment was administered using very low-cost, available drugs that are off patent.”

At the time, the Professor was exploring the extent to which a mechanism could be established with the Harvard Medical School, not only to test these drugs in Kenya, but move ahead and manufacture them locally.

One of his colleagues had 24 promising cures for cancer. So, he was seeking collaboration with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) to see how these drugs can be repurposed in Africa.

According to the Professor Juma at the time, some of the drugs in question were everyday medication we take for anti-acid control, which cost next to nothing, but work against certain kinds of cancer.

Chemogenetics

An ongoing research by the KEMRI-Walter Reed Project in Kisumu has evaluated 23 out of 28 existing drugs for reuse against malaria, through a research process known as chemogenetics.

The application of chemistry and genetics is helping evaluate treatment against malaria using “drugs designed for a specific disease but is now being tested to treat another disease,” explained Douglas Ochora, a researcher at KEMRI during the 10th KEMRI Annual Scientific & Health Conference held in February in Nairobi.

In other words, drugs act by targeting proteins of parasites, thereby either enhancing or inhibiting their activity, the end result of which is that the parasite cannot survive. It eventually dies.



Artemisinin based combination therapy has been a staple treatment for malaria. However recent resistance reports is calling for alternative treatments such as re-positioning or re-purposing of drugs. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI.

Databases

These proteins, against which most of the already approved drugs act, are listed in various databases and are therefore well known to scientists and researchers. These databases online list what these drugs treat and the protein they target in either humans or parasites.

It is by use of these databases that researchers are able to identify existing drugs that might contain active ingredients against a protein of a malaria-transmitting parasite such as the Plasmodium Falciparum. The parasite is responsible for over 90 per cent of all malaria transmission.

Scientists have first to look through the National Council for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) database, which has a list of all parasite proteins.

Then, they will look for a drug that is active against an amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) sequence that corresponds to a particular parasite – Plasmodium Falciparum – in this case. These drugs are listed in the Therapeutic Target Database, Drug Bank and STITCH databases.

Drugs Show Promise

A number of already approved drugs show some efficaciousness against malaria. This includes the HIV drug, Zidovudine, the anti-cancer drugs Oxaliplatin and the antibiotic Moxifloxacin.

Repurposing or repositioning of existing drugs is a more cost-effective way of research and development.

“Simply put, safety and other research considerations surrounding drug development will not be an issue, when re-positioning drugs,” says Reagan Mogire, a research scientist at KEMRI involved in this research.

Mogire adds that the time taken to develop a new drug, up until its introduction into the market takes no less than a dozen years. And, it is an expensive affair whose cost is approximated to be between $100-800 million.

93 % of the 228 million malaria cases recorded in 2018 were in Sub Sahara Africa. Of the 405,000 deaths that occurred, 94 % took place in the same region.

WHO.

In any case, it should be noted that many active compounds under research fail to progress to the treatment phase because of safety concerns.

Re-purposing of drugs to treat malaria will no doubt help fast-track the development and later deployment of treatment. This is especially important in Africa which continues to bear the brunt of malaria infection in the World.

According to the WHO, 93 per cent of the 228 million malaria cases recorded in 2018 were in Sub Sahara Africa. And of the 405,000 deaths that occurred, 94 per cent took place in the same region.

Why Accurate Climate-specific Information is Not Enough

By Geoffrey Kamadi

A mango farmer parking his produce after harvesting. Recent weather forecasting information messaging initiatives in Kenya are targeting ordinary people like farmers. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI

The past few months saw heavy downpour in various parts of the country, resulting in damage to property and infrastructure. People even lost their lives to either flooding or landslides that ensued.

It turns out however that the weather forecast information for September to December was readily available. It just so happens that either the people did not receive this information, or that perhaps even if they did, it was never heeded. Otherwise, its dissemination might have been inefficient or inadequate.

The heavy rains were caused by a phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole. This is where the warming of the sea in the Western Indian Ocean – where the East African hinterland lies – causes evaporation. This escapes into the atmosphere as water vapour, before cooling and coming down as rain.

The unnecessary loss of life resulting from this event was no doubt unfortunate. Yet, it is a painful reminder of the need for weather and climate information deliberately tailor-made to fit the specific needs of the ordinary individual in the village.

Dr. Linda Ogallo, of the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre, Kenya, making a presentation during The 3rd Symposium on Climate Change Adaptation in Africa, at the University of Nairobi in January, 2020. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI.

ACREI

Hence, there is need to integrate indigenous traditional knowledge in the dissemination of climate information

But this, in and of itself, might not be enough after all, at least going by the unfortunate consequences following the rains. On the other hand, a number of climate information projects in parts of the country are proving extremely useful to the end user.

Makueni County in Eastern Kenya is a good example of this. Under the Climate Information System project, the County’s director of environment is working with meteorological directors to provide weekly weather forecasts to the community.

But they are doing this in the most accessible and user-friendly manner. They are disseminating this information using vernacular FM radio stations and text messages. The villager need only subscribe to the SMS service at no charge.This approach is consistent with an earlier survey which showed that the end-users preferred this information be conveyed via indigenous traditional channels.

Known as the Agricultural Climate Resilience Enhancement Initiative (ACREI), the three-year survey was conducted in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Findings showed that “the producers of climate information (met department) were generating a lot of information but the community were not using it,” explains Dr. Linda Ogallo of the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC) that conducted the study.

“Hence, there is need to integrate indigenous traditional knowledge in the dissemination of climate information,” urges Ogallo.

The Climate Change Act has now been drafted in Makueni County, something which has seen the establishment of the Climate Change Fund. This is a powerful tool, because it now enables sourcing of funds for climate change mitigation and adaptation intervention measures, from both the county and national governments.

The Act and the Fund have empowered the county government to put up what are known as the “public good investments”.

“These are utility infrastructure such as community water tanks, sand dams and rock catchment sites, which are used for harvesting and conserving water,” says Vincent Ondieki, a climate change expert involved in the Climate Information System project.

SMAP

Dissemination of the weather forecast information was either inadequate, inefficient or went unheeded. Otherwise, the widespread damage caused by recent floods and landslides could have been prevented. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI.

At another level, the Season-Media Action Plan, or SMAP in short, is a climate information dissemination project taking place in Taita Taveta County, a hardship coastal region of Kenya. It is being implemented by the ICPAC.

Under this project, the meteorological department experts and media were brought together in a training on mainstreaming climate change information. The FM radio stations have been co-opted in this effort to disseminate information on the likelihood of landslide and flood events. Also provided under this initiative, is the information on the type of crops to plant depending on the weather.

“This has seen improvement in climate change reporting,” says Collison Lore, the user engagement expert at ICPAC.

And now, press conferences are held every month to discuss climate change issues. It brings together the media, weather forecast information producers (meteorologists) and end users (the community).

It is interesting however, to note that the SMAP project was a spin-off from the ACREI survey.

The survey found that 78%, 67% and 66% of respondents from Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda respectively have never offered feedback on climate information they received. In other words, the approach by climate information producers has always been top-down or one-way street; users have not been invited to contribute.

It is a positive development though, that the messaging is targeting the end user in more specific ways than ever before. However, this should go a step further to engage the community more by seeking their views about the information they receive.

This is the only way to improve the quality and therefore usability and applicability of this information that might have prevented the tragic events caused by the heavy rains.

Livelihoods are Threatened by Rising Salinity Levels in The Tana River Delta

By Geoffrey Kamadi

The damming of River Tana and the environmental degradation upstream, has reduced the amount of silt and water reaching the Tana River Delta, over time. Hence the sea has been pushing further and further inland unhindered, jeopardizing livelihoods.

But mega infrastructure development projects planned in the Tana River Basin are set to worsen the situation.

This InfoNile.org infographics narrative by GEOFFREY KAMADI was supported with funding from IHE Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development through Water Journalists Africa.

New Type 2 Diabetes Gene Discovery Point to Rich Genetic Diversity of Africans

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Abebaw Amisganaw, Research Assistant at Holetta Agricultural Research Center, Ethiopia, demonstrates how DNA is extracted. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI.

The announcement this week of the discovery of a new type 2 diabetes (T2D) gene in Africa, once again reinforces the notion about the continent’s rich genetic diversity. The ZRANB3 gene discovered in sub-Saharan Africa has been shown to have a variation linked to T2D in the region.

This discovery by Dr. Francis Collins and the Africa America Diabetes Mellitus (AADM) team, is a culmination of a study involving 5,231 volunteers from Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.

The team was able to show that an impaired ZRANB3 gene interferes with the production of insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas, which controls blood sugar levels. It helps the body utilize sugar (glucose) from carbohydrate foods, or to store the glucose for future use. Insulin therefore regulates sugar levels from getting too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia).

New Gene Important in Beta Cell Function

According to the findings, the ZRANB3 gene is active in insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. And since people with T2D typically have reduced numbers of beta cells, their ability to produce enough insulin is therefore compromised.

In addition, it was found that the ZRANB3 gene was important for beta cells to survive and function the way they are supposed to. It is important to note that this particular gene is extremely rare among populations in Europe, America and Asia.

And the manner in which the scientists made this discovery is interesting in itself. Patients turning up at a hospital in Nigeria were not overweight (obesity is a predisposing factor to T2D), even though they had the illness. This observation was puzzling of course, prompting Dr. Collins and his team to want to find out more.

This discovery will help understand the risk factors to T2D on the continent as well as improving understanding of the condition globally.

This story reminds me of the rich genetic diversity found nowhere else in the world, but in Africa, something which scientists are beginning to pay close attention to. The potential benefits that could accrue from taking full advantage of information distilled from this genetic diversity could potentially lead to groundbreaking medical discoveries.

But it has not always been like this, though. According to an article published by Newsweek in August last year, fewer than 1 percent of the several genome (all the genetic information of an organism) investigations all over the world included Africans, by as recent as the year 2009.

“More and more scientists are coming around to Rotimi’s view – that Africa contains one of the greatest weapons in the quest to combat cancer: the DNA of its people,” read the article, referencing Charles Rotimi, a Nigerian-born scientist, specializing in genetics and health disparities.

Rotimi has been at the forefront of championing the inclusion of African genetics in scientific research. This has seen the establishment of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa, otherwise also known as H3Africa, a research effort geared towards studying African genomes, led by African scientists and located in African institutions.

Incidentally, Rotimi is part of the AADM team, that was instrumental in the discovery of the new ZRANB3 gene in Africa.

African Genome Research

The Newsweek article went on to point out that the ancestral trees of Africans has been branching out for so much longer that those of Europeans and Americans and that they contain much more variation.

“In fact, African genomes are the most diverse of any on the planet,” it concludes.

Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania is quoted in the article as saying that European and Asian populations are more similar when compared to each other than any two African populations that have been studied.

Perhaps even more instructive, according to this article, is the fact that Africans have much better genomes for research compared to Europeans and Americans.

All what this boils down to is that “increasing genomic research in Africa is going to benefit not just people of African descent,” Tishkoff is quoted as saying, “but all people.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist explains it (from the14:20minute mark) further.

“You would expect the greatest genetic diversity of the human species to be expressed in Africa, because it [life]all began there,” he says.

This is where the tallest and the shortest people (the Watusi and the pygimies respectively) in the world can be found. It is also where the fastest runners originate– on the West coast of Africa. And the most enduring, long-distance runners in terms of stamina can also be found on the continent – in Kenya, which is in East Africa. The same argument applies for the slowest, dumbest as well as the smartest individual.

Indeed, it is for this reason that the next Einstein Initiative was conceived through the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) – to help young, bright Africans achieve their dreams in various fields of science.

New HIV Vaccine Candidate Mimics Virus for the First Time

A new vaccine candidate trial is underway in Kenya and the US. Photo courtesy of USAID/ IAVI

By Geoffrey Kamadi

HIV/AIDS vaccine research is becoming exciting again. This is something that has not been said of vaccines in general lately, leave alone one developed to potentially protect against HIV, given past experiences and recent reports.

The disastrous STEP and Phambili HIV vaccine efficacy trials in 2007 left the world of Human Immunodeficiency Virus research reeling from a body blow that was sure to undermine confidence in vaccine research for some time yet. It will be recalled that data from these trials suggested that the vaccine candidate may in fact have enhanced risk of HIV infection, rather than protect from HIV.

These trials had to be terminated mid-course, given the grave risk exposed to participants by a vaccine candidate developed by the multinational pharmaceutical company Merck.

However, things appear to be looking up (at least that is the prevailing sentiment among researchers) in the HIV vaccine trials realm.

The scientific community is excited about a new HIV vaccine trial, currently underway in the US and soon to be launched in Kenya, involving the vaccine candidate BG505 SOSIP.664gp140. Two sites in US an one in Kenya – Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative Institute of Clinical Research, based at the University of Nairobi School of Medicine will host the trials.

Each individual enrolled, will be followed for 18 months. About 24 individuals in Kenya and 36 in the US will take part in this trials, which are sponsored by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).

First Time

It will be the first time for over 30 years in trying to understand HIV vaccine development that a vaccine candidate has finally been designed to look much like the virus itself. This is potentially huge.

The outer part protein of the actual virus – or coat, otherwise also known as the Envelope – has spikes on it. So, this new vaccine candidate has been engineered to look much like the spikes existing on the outer part of the virus.

The hope among scientists with this new designed vaccine candidate is that being able to finally mimic the shape and structure of the virus, will hopefully help trigger a better immune response that will better enhance protection.

To put it in another way, scientists used design vaccine candidates using only a component of the Envelope of the virus, rather than involving the whole spike. And this is what is so exciting about these new trials.

It began by first scientists trying to understand the structure of the HIV virus, something which took a very long time to achieve. So, a body of knowledge accumulated over three decades of research, involving a contingent of scientists and institutions in different fields and backgrounds all over the world has culminated in this new advancement.

Baby Girl

The virus that was used to generate this current vaccine candidate was taken from an infant girl, hence the initials BG in the vaccine name. She was enrolled in an unrelated study that took place at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) several years ago.

What was interesting in this particular child was that by the age two, her immune system could produce neutralizing antibodies, which scientists think can offer protection against infection in a healthy individual. She got infected through mother to child transmission. The mother and child were followed up as a cohort at KNH.

Now, scientists are interested in finding out whether the vaccine candidate can produce what are known as broadly neutralizing antibodies – those antibodies that protect against a number of HIV strains.

This trial is referred to as W001, which is the first step in understanding whether the vaccine candidate can produce neutralizing antibodies.

Saving the Mountain Bongo Could Be Critical to Millions of Livelihoods in Kenya

The National Recovery and Action Plan Plan for Mountain Bongo will help restore the population of the endangered species.
The mountain bongo antelope is a critically endangered species. Only a few scores remain in the wild. Photo by GEOFFREY KAMADI.

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Not only was it an uplifting piece of good news, but a source of pride and joy to welcome a new member of an endangered, rare species of antelope on July 7, at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.  

More importantly perhaps, the arrival of the new-born mountain bongo– appropriately christened Sabasaba (Swahili for Seven, seven, denoting the day and month of her birth) – is a clear indication that efforts to save the antelope are clearly bearing fruit. It also signals hope, in terms of restoring the population of the endangered species back into the wild and away from the brink of extinction.

However, whereas it is all very well to save the antelope for the sake of saving the species, it is important to keep in mind that its survival cannot be decoupled from the need to restore, protect and conserve its natural habitat.

It is worth noting too that the home of this animal happens to be in Kenya’s water towers (forested mountain environments). This includes the Mau Forest Complex, Mount Kenya forest, The Aberdare Ranges, Cherangani Hills, Mount Elgon, Londiani and Nandi Hills.

Water Towers Critical to Livelihoods

And we all know what critical socio-economic role these water towers play. Whether it is in power generation, tourism or agriculture the livelihoods of the vast majority of Kenyans depend directly and indirectly on the wellbeing of these mountain forest environments.

In other words, conserving the mountain bongo antelope is not only beneficial to this particular animal per se, but that protecting the species has direct and indirect implications on human as well.

This can, and usually does lead to grave, even tragic consequences, such as clashes between farming and livestock-keeping communities, who fight over the dwindling water resources. Also, the erosion of the fertile topsoil is made worse as is the risk of avalanches, saying nothing of climate change effects that are exacerbated as a consequence. And the list goes on and on, ad nauseam.

The launch of the National Recovery Action Plan for the Mountain Bongo. The Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, Mr. Najib Balala (L) Holding the plan with the governor of Laikipia County, Honourable Ndiritu Muriithi. Photo by GEOFFREY KAMADI.

Environment Under Threat

Perhaps nowhere in Kenya are the serious ramifications of environmental interference upstream unfolding in such an obvious yet consequential, tragic manner than in the Tana River Delta. The Delta, which sits on nearly a quarter of Kenya’s total land mass (21.7 per cent), very much depends on water emanating from these water towers.

Tana River catchment relies on Mount Kenya (49 per cent) and The Aberdare Ranges (44 per cent) for its water. However, damming of the river and destruction of the river’s catchment environment upstream has reduced the water volume and the amount of silt deposited in the Delta.

What this means is that the Delta has lost 20 per cent of its total area and that the region’s soil fertility has greatly reduced, thereby affecting crop yield. What’s more, the low water volumes in the river channel cannot withstand the force of the sea water from the Indian Ocean like before, during the high tide.

In other words, the sea water is pushing further and further to distances as far as 30km inland through the river channel. This water therefore cannot support farming, fresh water fish nor can it be depended upon by pastoral communities for their livestock. One can only imagine what this means for the livelihoods of thousands in the Delta.

It goes without saying that the water tower environments need protecting. And one way of doing so, is by protecting the mountain bongo antelope.

The Mountain Bongo Antelope

The endangered mountain bongo antelope is endemic to the mountain forest environments of Kenya. Photo by GEOFFREY KAMADI.

This is what Najib Balala, the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, set out to do by unveiling the National Recovery and Action Plan for the Mountain Bongo (2019-2023) on July 8. The Plan will help focus on security, human activities, disease prevention, species interaction, enhancing breeding programmes as well as policy harmonization.

Fewer than 100 individuals exist in the wild the world over, out of which Kenya is host to 77. The species has been classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Antelope Specialist Group (IUCN 2003) as a critically endangered species.

It is listed on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), which allows limited trade on the species.

It is also listed under the Sixth Schedule of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act (WCMA), 2013 as an endangered species. The Act prescribes special focus on this species through the development of a recovery plan.

A number of organizations have been instrumental in the setting up of the species’ recovery in the Mount Kenya Game Ranch (MKGR). This includes the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida.

A sanctuary to re-introduce the animals back into the will be put up in the Mount Kenya region early next year.

Why Indigenous Species are Key to Climate Change Response

They are taking trees indigenous to Africa to grow them in other places to study their genetics

By Geoffrey Kamadi

This tree species plays an important role in enriching retaining moisture in soils and enriching their fertility. It can also be used as fodder for livestock.
Fidherbia (acacia) Albida is found nowhere else in the world, except in Africa. Photo courtesy of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)

The over-exploitation of a tree species in one of the driest regions in Kenya really underscores the critical role played by indigenous plant species in responding to unpredictable weather patterns.

The Acacia tortillis tree species is central to the survival of livestock during droughts for the Samburu community – a nomadic-pastoral people – of northern Kenya. This community relies on the pods from the tree as a source of nourishment for their livestock in the absence of pasture. 

Sheep and goats are allowed to feed on the pods only after they drop to the ground. Their indigenous knowledge and practice forbade the harvesting of pods, thereby ensuring the sustainable utilization of this resource.

And the pods would drop at just the right time during the dry season, thereby sustaining the livestock until the next rains. But now, weather patterns have changed so much so that these communities are foregoing this century-old custom and are harvesting the pods even before their time, something which has become unsustainable both in the short and long run.

So, this community wanders far and wide looking for pasture, something which has resulted in bloody conflicts with other communities over grazing fields. Increasing human population and dwindling land sizes have not helped matters either.

On the other hand, invasive plants such as the cactus opuntia and the acacia raficiens species, are taking up precious land. These plants are also discouraging the growth of other plants and grasses, where they exist, hence exacerbating the situation.

This phenomenon playing out in northern Kenya reminds of instances in the past, where Kenya has failed to seize opportunities presented by its diverse but rich plant biodiversity.

Take the exploitation of the genetic properties of the fidherbia (acacia) albida tree species by the Beijing Genomics Institute for example. This tree species – going by the common name of white thorn – exists nowhere else in the world, but on the African continent. It plays an important role in replenishing soil fertility and whose pods are eaten by livestock as fodder.

Talking to a research scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) about the involvement of the Chinese in this project a few years back, I could not help but notice his frustration and utter resignation at what the country was doing.

In not so many words, the scientist likened the country’s actions to ceding her birth right to other people.

“They are taking trees indigenous to Africa to grow them in other places to study their genetics,” he told me at the time. His concern was obvious in the tone of both of his voice and his answers to my questions.

“The result is that the genetic material can be used, for example, to put into other crops and before you know it, we have a different tree, with similar characteristics as our own,” he told me at the time.

But Kenya has been here before. I remember Professor Onesmo Ole MoiYoi once giving a talk about how the Maasai grass species and the Zebu species of cow – indigenous to Kenya – was taken to Brazil in the 1970s and have since revolutionized that country’s beef industry.

At the time Professor MoiYoi was the chairman of the Board of Management of the then Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) known today as the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO).

Back to the Samburus of northern Kenya. I know the nomadic communities in this region have been, and continues to be empowered to growing such hardy grass species as sacreas cillians and the establishment of bomas (kraals or pens) on the nomadic migratory routes, that promotes the sustainable use of pasture.

However, as the effects of climate change become more and more evident, the role played by indigenous species in mitigating some of these effects should not be underestimated or overlooked.