Fear of failure drives me, says Ebola vaccine scientist

Prof Walter Jaoko at his home in Kilimani, Nairobi, in May this year.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • "I research human beings and I need people to participate in testing new drugs. When there are rumours and misinformation, it scares them away."

You are passionate about research, what is so interesting about it?

Research is a natural thing for me because of my inquisitiveness. I want to fill the gaps in the field of medicine. If I find a treatment drug that has a lot of side effects, I ask myself what can I do to get a better drug, and I dig deeper into research for the solution.

It is said research is frustrating when things get tough and don't work, how do you keep going?

It's true research can be frustrating at some point, but when you have the right frame of mind, research in its nature forces you to take a step backward, reflect, adjust and move forward and scrutinise what has worked and what has not worked and make adjustments. That is part of the research discipline.

At what stage did you plunge into research?

After my first degree, I joined a PhD student from Veterinary School at the University of Nairobi who was researching on bilharzia and its transmission between baboons and humans in Kibwezi. I compared the effects of the drugs on children who had eaten and those who had not eaten. I designed a small study which showed that drugs taken on an empty stomach had more side effects compared to those who had eaten. I published that and it was accepted for publication in the East African Medical Journal.  That was in 1991. I have never looked back.

As a researcher, what scares you?

Rumours and misinformation. That dashes my hope. I research human beings and I need people to participate in testing new drugs. When there are rumours and misinformation, it scares them away.

As a researcher what inspires you?

I'm inspired by getting solutions to problems affecting human beings. My current drive is to find an HIV /Aids vaccine. That would be a breakthrough. Anything that would resolve a problem that affects humanity inspires me.

What is your role at KAVI institute of clinical research?

I oversee about 60 employees, doing research and my role is to ensure the research is conducted to the highest standards.

What are some of the challenges in the research work that you do?

One of the biggest challenges is getting funding to conduct research. We have never received any funding from Kenya. We compete for funding with others outside the country. We have to write grants and respond to calls for proposals, and compete globally. With US cutting on funding, competition has become stiffer.

What do you enjoy most in your work?

I enjoy listening to other researchers' perspectives and comparing with mine.  It is written in Proverbs 27:17, "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens the face of his neighbour.” That is why I treasure attending scientific conferences as I get an opportunity to interact and exchange notes.

Why is false information dangerous to a clinical trial?

It distracts scientists from burning the midnight oil to get a vaccine ... like for HIV/Aids which has taken decades.

What are some of your guiding principles as a researcher that keeps you going?

I'm a devout Christian and I'm driven by Christian principles of integrity, honesty, justice, fairness, and empathy. If you are not honest and a person of integrity you have no business being in this field.

Kenya is not developing a pool of young researchers. What are we not doing right to attract such brains?

Young people want instant financial security. They should embrace the principle of delayed gratification. When you see your research helping humanity it's more gratifying than the money you get. The government needs to remunerate researchers so that young doctors can be attracted. Young people are not patient as they want results very quickly.

What are we not getting right in Kenya when it comes to good research?

One of the problems is the failure to work together as scientists and researchers. There is no collaboration between local scientists. I would like to see the University of Nairobi researchers working with a researcher from Moi University, Masinde Muliro, or even Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) . Unfortunately, we work individually but we collaborate with other scientists outside the country.

Ethics in research is paramount, do you agree with that statement?

Research involving human participants must be ethical, regulated, and must be reviewed by the ethics review committee to ensure it has no ethical issues.

Which are some of the most important skills or attributes of a good researcher?

Critical thinking, integrity, social skills and you must work with other people. Days of researching as individuals are long gone. You must have an analytical mind to analyse data to make sense. Good writing skills are crucial to communicating new knowledge.

What is the role of African scientists in research of the Covid-19 vaccine?

Africa cannot afford to work in isolation, we must collaborate with other scientists in the world to find solutions. We should take risks and sacrifice. It is not morally right to wait for others to do research and remain bystanders. African governments should implement the Abuja declaration on health and set aside money in the health budget for research. African governments lack the political will to address matters.

What is the role of the African Vaccine Evaluation Forum which is an initiative of the World Health Organisation?

The forum helps African countries to thoroughly review any vaccines that are going to be tested within the continent by bringing researchers on one table and this facilitates a faster approval process. The model has worked very well. The forum is doing joint reviews for medicines and study of ebola and visceral leishmaniasis in Kenya which can be fatal.

Which is your proudest moment as KAVi director?

Participating in successful Ebola vaccine trials which resulted in a vaccine that is currently being been used for prevention of ebola

Which is your lowest moment as a researcher?

In early 2000 HIV/Aids vaccine trials were very promising and safe. A similar vaccine developed by other researchers was found not to work. This forced us to go back to the drawing board.

Your parting shot...

Research is hard work but it is worth the time. Community is key to successful health research. Spreading lies and rumours discourages communities and that is a great disservice to the world.