Dr Lamwaka bags billions in Covid-19 research bonanza

Covid-19 vaccine

AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine being administered to frontline personnel in the Tourism and Hospitality sector, at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre on April 27, 2021.

Photo credit:  Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The work of innovators like Dr Alice Lamwaka is not an accidental or isolated piece of luck.
  • Rather, it is the fruit of that vision of home-grown and home-growing knowledge that should be the hallmark of an African university.

Lamwaka may very well be the woman of the year (mwaka), just as Lawino is the woman of confidence and beauty. Dr Alice Veronica Lamwaka was this week awarded a Sh3.7 billion research grant to carry out immediate clinical trials for her Covalyce-1 herbal formula, believed to be effective in the management of Covid-19 infections. Dr Lamwaka is the Head of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Studies (Pharm-Biotech) at Gulu University, a public institution in the capital of Okot p’Bitek’s Acholi home region.

I will be confessing to you in a moment why Dr Lamwaka “Nya-Gulu” reminded me strongly of my teacher Okot p’Bitek and his unforgettable heroine in Song of Lawino. Let us first contextualize the story. Covalyce-1, the formula that Dr Lamwaka and her colleagues and associates, including 200 local herbalists, unveiled this week, is the latest weapon in the full attack Ugandan researchers are mounting on the Covid-19 scourge.

I told you recently of Prof Patrick Ogwang’s Covidex, which may be already available in a pharmacy near you, if your health authorities approve of it. My word of advice to you is, beware of fakes. Con-people and fraudsters may try and stick “Covidex” labels to counterfeits and sell them to unsuspecting and desperate patients.

Secondly, Covidex is not a cure, let alone a “miracle cure”, for Covid-19. As the Uganda National Drug Authority, which approved its use, pointed out, the drug is only one item in a wide regime of substances used in the management and treatment of symptoms of disorders like Covid-19.

Anyway, Prof Ogwang’s fortunes seem to be growing by leaps and bounds. On Wednesday, he was allocated a five-acre plot in Soroti City’s industrial area to set up a factory for his Jena Industries company to mass-produce Covidex. He will also have a ten-year tax-free holiday on all his products.
Still, it is not all roses and plaudits for Professor Ogwang. Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), his original employer, is still pressing an intellectual property suit against him.

Clinical testing of Covalyce-1

One civil society outfit has also filed a petition against Ogwang, claiming that the resources with which he developed Covidex were public property. Watch this space for the developing legal field day.

This, however, takes us back to Lamwaka, Okot and Lawino. Lawino, the village woman, observes at one point that “while the pythons of sickness swallow the children and the buffalos of poverty knock the people down, the war leaders are tightly locked in bloody feuds, eating each other’s liver”. We have de-poeticised the text for purposes of space, but you get the point.

Against this background, Dr Lamwaka Nya-Gulu’s narrative struck me with a particular poignancy. She just came up, showed her material, and told us what she and her colleagues were doing. She and her Vice-Chancellor, my friend and former Makerere colleague, Prof George Ladaah Openjuru, ended up with an invitation to State House, returning with a presidential directive for research funds and a clearance for clinical testing of Covalyce-1.

Even more moving and convincing about Dr Lamwaka’s presentation was the ingenuous yet technically detailed style in which she shared her findings, even with us medical ignoramuses. Covalyce-1, she said, was blended out of eight local herbs. Packaged in four different forms, a powder, drops, a linctus and even a suppository, it is administered through the appropriate orifice according to the patient’s condition. Maybe Dr Lamwaka’s claim that it works within 12-72 hours is the “q.e.d.” (what is to be demonstrated).

Compare, however, these revelations with Lawino’s assertions in Song of Lawino. “When my child is ill, I try the various Acholi herbs, I try the medicines my mother showed me.” She goes on to mention specific plants, like bomo, omwombye, lapena, ogali, olim and pobo. Lawino claims that some of these are good “for coughs and sore throat” and others remove “blockage from the throat”. I am neither qualified nor inclined to endorse the claims.

Home-grown knowledge

Remember also that these are not Dr Lamwaka’s claims, but the lines of Lawino, a fictive character in Okot p’Bitek’s poem. But they underline a crucial point. A lot of folk knowledge and wisdom, or what my friend Dr Humphrey Jeremiah Ojwang calls indigenous African epistemology, is contained in our orature and literature. It is thus primitive and ignorant to dismiss the study of literature and orature as “a waste of time”. They may just be the storehouses of knowledge we need in dire circumstances like the current pandemic.

This takes us even further back to Okot p’Bitek, and to the declared policy of Gulu University. Okot p’Bitek was not against modernity and modernisation. His persistent appeal was two-pronged. First, we should not abandon wholesale all of our centuries-old culture (throwing the baby out with the bath water, or “uprooting the pumpkin in the old homestead”). Secondly, we should avoid what he calls “apemanship”, mindlessly rushing to adopt foreign ways and lifestyles. Depending on foreigners for all of our existence is untenable, as illustrated by our desperation in these pandemic times.

Maybe this is what inspired Prof Openjuru, on becoming Vice-Chancellor in 2017, to orient Gulu University towards the establishment of an indigenous, local-based approach to learning and research activities. The work of innovators like Dr Alice Lamwaka is not an accidental or isolated piece of luck. Rather, it is the fruit of that vision of home-grown and home-growing knowledge that should be the hallmark of an African university. Though universal by definition and tradition, an African university should have its roots deep in its indigenous soil and its vision firmly on an African horizon.

I think I should start polishing up on my Acholi/Lwoo. If Prof Openjuru and his colleagues decide, as well they might, that Lwoo should be the main vehicle of instruction at Gulu University, I will not hesitate to apply for a job there.

Afwoyo, Dr Alice Lamwaka. Afwoyo matek, Lapwony Prof Openjuru! Congratulations.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.