What you need to know:
- Virology professor Kariuki Njenga will establish the Centre for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases-East and Central Africa (Creid-Eca), which will carry out studies on viruses such as the Rift Valley Fever and the coronavirus.
- Dr Fauci has asked Prof Njenga and his team to also “develop reagents and diagnostic assays to improve detection of emerging pathogens and study human immune responses to new or emerging infectious agents”.
A Kenyan research programme is one of 11 that have received Sh1.8 billion from the globally acclaimed USA National Institutes of Health to establish cutting-edge research centres for emerging diseases such as Covid-19.
Virology professor Kariuki Njenga, who is also a senior researcher at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), will establish the Centre for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases-East and Central Africa (Creid-Eca), which will carry out studies on viruses such as the Rift Valley Fever and the coronavirus that causes the Middle East respiratory syndrome.
The USA’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will support the centres through an initial Sh1.8 billion in the first five years. The agency intends to spend Sh8.9 billion during that period.
Niaid’s director Dr Anthony Fauci, who is also the US Covid-19 lead physician, said the knowledge that Prof Njenga’s work will produce will increase the world’s preparedness for future outbreaks.
“The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a potent reminder of the devastation that can be wrought when a new virus infects humans for the first time … the Creid network will enable early warnings of emerging diseases wherever they occur, which will be critical to rapid responses,” Dr Fauci said.
Dr Fauci has tasked Prof Njenga and his team to also “develop reagents and diagnostic assays to improve detection of emerging pathogens and study human immune responses to new or emerging infectious agents”.
The virologist told the Nation the grant will involve “bold science” such as carrying out research in the middle of a pandemic, and using the real-time results to help in the pandemic.
The money is supposed to involve research into how and where viruses and other pathogens emerge from wildlife and spill over to cause diseases in people, an area of expertise in Prof Njenga’s four-decade career.
The researcher, who is also a professor at Washington State University in the US, was instrumental in developing the system that considerably reduced the prevalence of the deadly Rift Valley Fever, which kills both animals and people.
Last year, the World Health Organisation put nine diseases as “priority due to the danger they pose to humanity: Rift Valley Fever, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (Mers-CoV), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and an unknown “Disease X,” which could be a serious international epidemic caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.”
Until 2010, Prof Njenga was the head of laboratories at the regional Centers for Disease Control (CDC), where he trained on the diagnosis of avian influenza for 14 regional laboratories in Africa. During his tenure, the CDC lab was established among the very first in the region with the equipment to conduct tests on haemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.
Last year, the researcher was inducted into the world's most elite science body – the 200-year-old National Academy of Sciences in the United States — for his contribution to human medicine.