Mutahi Kagwe was appointed Health Cabinet Secretary at a time Afya House was rocked by scandals and struggling with a crisis of confidence.
Three years later, how has he performed? He spoke to our Senior Health and Science Reporter Angela Oketch.
The government announced this week that Moderna will set up a factory in the country. What is this deal about?
We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which is an official agreement that Moderna will put up a plant in Kenya.
This is the largest foreign direct investment both in the country and the continent at large. It will cost about Sh60 billion. The most important thing is the impact the plant will have in Africa.
It will produce messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for the first time in Africa. This is going to make Kenya the pharmaceutical hub of the continent.
Is the plant just going to focus on the Covid-19 jab or other vaccines as well?
We will also produce other vaccines. The facility will also be looking at rare and latent microbes in the bodies. It will cement the production and continuation of HIV, Cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barr virus (a herpes virus) vaccines.
Beyond this, the plant will produce pharmaceuticals and non-pharmaceuticals. This will be an opportunity to mentor small-scale producers.
We are also going to look at how genome sequencing can be used to deal with other challenges in the body.
Many African countries wanted to have the plant and the negotiation process was long, how and why was Kenya chosen?
It was a tough competition. Many states fought for it. We were lucky that Kenya was finally chosen. Kenya has had a good relationship with Moderna and it also occupies a strategic regional position.
We have also created a conducive business environment. This places Kenya on the global map of vaccine producers.
Do we have the infrastructure and human resources for the plant?
We need hundreds of scientists, researchers and laboratory technologists. We will also look for specialists from other countries.
When will we start production?
World Health Organization officials will be in Kenya in July to certify the plant. The vaccines produced here can be purchased by any country in the world. This is a private investment; our role is to ensure that bureaucracy does not become a hindrance.
You declared war on cartels in your ministry two years ago, how is it going?
I have dealt with them; cartels won’t dictate what we do at the ministry. There are employees who were transferred in 2005 and I only managed to get them out of this place this year. Every time we try to change things around here, they rush to court.
You were found guilty of contempt of court for transferring two senior officers of an agency...
If I am going to go to court because I did what I deemed right, then so be it. I won’t be swayed. I had to ask the former Chief Justice David Maraga whether transferring people was wrong and whether we needed the consent of the court to do so.
NHIF (National Health Insurance Fund) has a bad reputation, why are you forcing families to remit Sh6,000 to an institution they do not have trust in?
I am restructuring the board and management. We have hired a new managing director to drive the UHC (universal health coverage) agenda. If we don’t do this thing well, we’ll be taken to court.
How far are the investigations on the Covid millionaires?
We have done a lot of work at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority to ensure things are done transparently. Some things were, however, not true. For instance, there were no inflated prices of products because those were the global prices at the time.
There were concerns that blood donated by Kenyans was illegally being sold in Somalia. What changes did you make?
I took over a disaster in the name of a blood centre; there was no blood in the country as people were selling, stealing and mismanaging blood. The centres were not working, and mothers were dying for lack of blood. With the infrastructure that has been put in place and the technology, we can trace blood from the source to the user. We have also established regional blood centres.
Why is the cost of health care in the country so high?
Two things that define health care in a hospital are the equipment and the cost. This is a clause that UHC is working on. It is going to dictate access, standards and cost of health care. The way to bring down the cost of health care is by matching demand and supply. When private hospitals are well equipped but public facilities are struggling, patients suffer.
We are now building new hospitals and equipping them. My mother was recently treated at Kenyatta University Hospital because they have the best equipment and doctors and the cost is affordable since NHIF covers her.
The taxes on imported drugs and equipment are partly to blame for the high cost of health care, what are you doing about it?
This is a discussion I have been having with the National Treasury. I want to bring down the taxes and if possible, waive them. We also need to ramp up our manufacturing.
Should the Covid-19 regulations be withdrawn?
My fear is that people have relaxed because of the low positivity rate. We need to look at the bigger picture as we have a lot to deal with when it comes to regulations and mandates. We are always informed by scientists.
Do you think the governors have managed the health docket well?
Yes and no. After 10 years of devolution, governors will tell you that at certain levels of hospital management, they require national government involvement. Kakamega County, for example, wants to transfer the referral hospital back to the government. The constitution allows the transfer of functions from one government to the other and most counties want us to take level six hospitals.
You were once touted as Raila Odinga’s possible running mate from Mt Kenya, tell us more...
Focus and concentrate on what you have at hand. What job do you have? Other ideas are welcome but we will cross the bridge when we get there.
What would you like to be remembered for?
That guy who placed a smile on a patients’ faces and development of local manufacturing.