What you need to know:
- The colleagues have questioned the manner in which Dr Lutomiah was dismissed, insisting that it did not follow the right procedure.
- The scientists added that the CS and top ministry officials should have told Dr Lutomiah that the results would be released in the morning for him to get prepared.
A scientist in charge of testing for the coronavirus at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) has been demoted as the organisation reels under financial pressure.
Since the first case was reported in Kenya in mid-March, Kemri has tested more than 6,000 people under the leadership of Dr Joel Lutomiah, the Centre for Virus Research director.
The institution has the largest testing capacity in the country. Kemri Director-General Yeri Kombe asked Dr Lutomiah to put in place the necessary infrastructure to respond to the pandemic.
He was the chairman of the Kemri Rapid Response, which is charge of laboratories, and would appear on the Ministry of Health committee to give the position of the institute on Covid-19.
This was until April 17, when Dr Lutomiah was dismissed, following reports that he failed to release the results on time that Friday.
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe instructed Prof Kombe to remove Dr Lutomiah from any leadership position at Kemri immediately.
According to a confidential notice seen by the Sunday Nation, titled “Disciplinary letter”, the researcher delayed the release of Covid-19 lab results.
“This is further to our meeting with the Cabinet secretary this afternoon on the matter relating to your conduct. You, this morning, delayed the release of Covid-19 laboratory results of the previous evening contrary to an earlier agreement with the Ministry of Health that you release them before 8am. You, therefore, have failed in your duty to honour a matter that is of national importance,” the letter by Prof Kombe says.
“I hereby relieve you of your duties as the Director, Centre for Virus with immediate effect. You will hand over to Dr Samson Konongoi, who will act until a substantive holder is appointed. Meanwhile, revert to your previous position as a research scientist.”
When the Sunday Nation contacted Dr Lutomiah, he directed us to the corporate affairs department, which refused to comment.
“I am sorry. Neither the director-general, Prof Kombe nor we in corporate communications have answers to the questions you seek. Please contact the Ministry of Health for guidance,” corporate affairs official James Wodera said.
Calls and messages to Mr Kagwe, Health Director-General Patrick Amoth and Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi went unanswered.
However, a ministry official said Dr Lutomiah was not dismissed but resigned “because of the sensitivity of the pandemic”.
“This was not a dismissal. The director-general was directed by the big man to remove him from that position … because of the problems we had with receiving results,” the official said.
He added that there was a problem with the results of the first Covid-19 patient. “To avoid similar occurrences, it was in order that Dr Lutomiah be replaced,” he added.
Dr Lutomiah’s colleagues say he was shoved aside for questioning the government’s commitment to supporting the financially starved research institute.
“We only received white gumboots from the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency as personal protective gear last month,” one of the researchers told the Sunday Nation.
“He demanded answers and even threatened to stop the tests if we were not given the protective equipment. This is why he has been removed from the position. He is firm.”
The colleagues have also questioned the manner in which Dr Lutomiah was dismissed, insisting that it did not follow the right procedure.
The scientists say the minister has no right or authority to effect such a dismissal.
The daily briefings on coronavirus are usually done in the afternoon and Mr Kagwe’s decision to do so during a tour of the airport was not expected.
Dr Lutomiah would collect the results and submit the manual and automated ones to the minister.
“The results were not late. The Cabinet secretary went to the airport in the morning to receive some goodies,” the researcher added.
“He went off the script and announced the results instead, yet he was to do so at 3pm. It happened before Dr Lutomiah could submit the manual ones. The results he had were from the Cobas machines.”
The scientists added that the CS and top ministry officials should have told Dr Lutomiah that the results would be released in the morning for him to get prepared.
The dismissal has created tension at Kemri, with researchers accusing Prof Kombe of failing to defend a colleague dismissed wrongly.
“We demand to be given reasons for the dismissal of our team leader who has worked with us all this time. The mistake, if there was any, was not his making. Why is the government interfering with the running of Kemri?” asked another researcher.
He added that the action by Mr Kagwe and Prof Kombe could be the reason fewer coronavirus tests are being done.
“The researchers are not happy. This is a sensitive national security matter. When an institution of this nature starts to feel neglected, things are really bad. These scientists handle very many infectious materials,” he said
The scientist told the Sunday Nation that an institution like Kemri, where the directors are taken through vigorous procedures before being recruited to head a centre, Dr Lutomiah should have been given a chance to explain exactly what happened.
“Our director would have been taken through the procedures. He should have appeared before the disciplinary committee, given the chance to explain himself before the case could be taken to the board,” the researcher said.
“A centre director cannot just be dismissed like a subordinate worker. Why can’t he be allowed to defend himself?”
Kemri is yet to receive a single cent from the ministry for the coronavirus fight. As many samples arrive, the institute has to divert resources and money meant for research to continue with the testing.
The researchers told the Sunday Nation that the Health ministry requested the centre to come up with a Covid-19 testing budget proposal.
The centre did and arrived at Sh10 billion. However, the amount was negotiated to Sh7 billion.
Kemri has the largest number of testing sites and would have received the lion’s share of the budget.
When Covid-19 was first reported in the country towards mid-March, infrastructural development at Kemri was stopped.
The money meant for other research programmes was directed to the coronavirus, with hopes that it would be reimbursed by the government. No research is going on at Kemri for now.
The institution does not have money as it has used its funds and equipment from other programmes to keep the coronavirus work going.
Kemri has received 6,000 testing kits from the government and 1,000 from the Clinton Foundation.
The consignment is to be shared among the institute’s satellite clinics, including Kisumu, Nairobi, Kericho, Kilifi and Ampath and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital.
The centre expects an additional 41,000 testing gadgets — some 26,000 from the government and 15,000 from the Clinton Foundation — early next week.
It has received two consignments of personal protective equipment from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC).
Kemri researchers also need protective equipment since they are handling the samples. The researchers say the white gumboots they received from the government are not enough.
The institute has begun exploring other ways of supporting the proposed Covid-19 research areas, especially those of immediate impact.
The scientists are seeking Sh790 million for personnel, equipment and other programmes.
According to the researchers, Sh100 million will be used to increase manpower to support laboratory screening, vaccine development and diagnostics in order to improve the turnaround time and delivery.
Some Sh540 million will go into buying coronavirus reagents and screening materials.
“A lot of reagents and materials are being utilised in screening and testing of the virus. The institute has utilised most of the available resources; thus, there is a need to procure more of laboratory and personal protective equipment,” the report on the proposed budget says.
In order to increase capacity, screening kits production and vaccine development, Kemri is looking for Sh150 million to procure equipment like freezers, autoclave, DNA synthesisers, protein synthesisers, guillotines and illimuna sequencers.
“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 potential donors to bridge the gap,” the budget proposal document goes on.
The institute says the government has neglected it, considering that its mandate is research.
The scientists say the component of research at the task force in the Ministry of Health is chaired by a lecturer from the University of Nairobi instead of Kemri.
“What the university does is very different from what Kemri is engaged in. The research that goes on at Kemri is very deep and unique and cannot be compared with what universities are doing. Why take a person from a university to head the research component at the task force? Why is the Kenyan government not taking the work of institutions like Kemri seriously?” the scientist asked.
He added that the institution was only added into the task force when the management protested.
“We had to force ourselves and second someone to be in the team to push our issues but the chairperson remains a medical microbiologist at the University of Nairobi. The ministry should have defended us. When it comes to research, Kemri is known in the region,” he said.