Magazine article New African

'This Is Not a Laughing Matter'

Magazine article New African

'This Is Not a Laughing Matter'

Article excerpt

Clinical trials of an Aids vaccine developed by University of Nairobi scientists and their Oxford counterparts will begin this month (December). But an attempt by the Britons to get an exclusive patent on the immunogen without telling the Kenyans, has sent tongues wagging in Nairobi. And the Britons can dare say: "There was some oversight on our side". Really?

Five scientists -- three Kenyans and two Britons -- had worked together to develop an Aids vaccine. All went well until the Britons decided to take a patent for the formula, without telling the three Kenyan scientists -- a classical tale of "we told you so".

But they all looked a good team from the start. The Kenyans -- Dr Job Bwayo, head of the microbiology department of the University of Nairobi, Prof. Jeckoniah Ndinya-Achola and Dr Omu Anzala -- had been trying to develop the vaccine for the past five years with the Oxford University scientists, Dr Thomas Hanke and Prof Andrew McMichael.

At the close of 1999, the Britons applied to the UK Patent Office to be acknowledged as the inventors of the new immunogen. They never told the Kenyans they were applying. The Kenyan doctors later learnt they had been shortchanged.

"Immediately we realised our names were not included, we entered into correspondence with our collaborators to ensure we were reflected as part of the researchers", said Dr Bwayo after the Kenyan press blew up the top.

Ordinary Kenyans were shocked but not surprised. But that was half the story as the knife had not been twisted yet. The person to do the twisting was no other than the head of the Oxford University's Medical Research Centre (MRC), Dr Anne-Marie Coriat.

In an interview with Kenya's Daily Nation, Dr Coriat decided to lecture Kenyans first. "There has been concern in Kenya," she said, "over rights to the vaccine following reports that a patent had been taken on it, naming its inventors as Dr Thomas Hanke and Prof Andrew McMichael.

"The individuals who came up with the concept and design of the gene to be used as the basis of the vaccine were two MRC scientists. The new immunogen was designed in the MRC Human Immunology Unit, using publicly available information ... there are no Kenyan inventors."

Really! So what on earth were the three Kenyan doctors doing for the last five years? Or were they mere "spanner boys" as one leading Kenyan doctor asked.

But Dr Anne-Marie Coriat was not finished. She referred the Kenyans baying for the blood of the Britons to the Oxford Dictionary -- for the exact meaning of the word "Inventor":

She told the Daily Nation: "An inventor is one who has a direct contribution to the matter contained in the patent application itself ... there are no Kenyan inventors and the novel information in the patent does not include data obtained from ... the University of Nairobi team, which had already been published."

That was sure to make Kenyan blood pressure jump even higher. "We have been insulted in plain English that there are no Kenyan inventors", protested the Daily Nation columnist, Kwamchetsi Makokha. "Dr Bwayo alone has a 30-page CV that does not mention the primary schools he went to. It is a catalogue of research projects and published scientific papers. That Dr Bwayo, Dr Anzala and Prof Jeckoniah Ndinya-Achola were no more than laboratory hands".

The three Kenyan scientists had for the last 10 years researched on HIV-Aids and discovered some "unique facts about HIV" in the sprawling slums of Majengo in Nairobi.

It was here that the scientists discovered that a group of sex workers did not contract HIV-Aids even after being exposed to the virus, simply because their T-cells, which are part of the body's immune system, quickly destroyed the cells that had been infected. Similar findings had been found in The Gambia but it was the Majengo information that had proved to be crucial for the development of the immunogen. …

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