Nacosti raises red flag over unethical research that doesn't benefit locals

Oyawa says it is wrong for researchers to undertake research that does not benefit the society

In Summary

• The Nacosti boss expresses disappointment that there were 12 cases of researchers who had fake permits.

• Oyawa urges WRTI to tighten the noose against all the offenders.

Mzee Mwarangu shows where he hangs the ‘anti-venom’ for neighbours to easily access in case of snake bite
Mzee Mwarangu shows where he hangs the ‘anti-venom’ for neighbours to easily access in case of snake bite
Image: KNA

Dorcas Chemutai Yegon was asleep when a piercing pain ran through her spine.

The pain started in her right leg.

Chemutai, who hails from Koiboware in Baringo, was at the time seven years old. The year was 2014.

She immediately woke up her grandmother, who lit the fire for the rays to light up the house.

“We found a mark resembling a snake bite on my right leg,” she says.

Chemutai says her grandma did first aid using locally sourced drugs.

After a few minutes, Chemutai says she felt like vomiting.

She later fell asleep but in the morning, her leg was swollen.

Neighbours helped trace the offending reptile but they did not find it.

As all this happened, a decision was made to take Chemutai to Sibiloi dispensary, about five kilometres from her home.

The facility did not have anti-venom and Chemutai was given pain relievers before being referred to Marigat hospital.

Chemutai says transport to Marigat was another hurdle, but luckily a motorbike belonging to a national government official was available to take her to the facility, about 20 kilometres away.

When they got to the hospital, no help was forthcoming as well.

Chemutai spent the night at the facility before she was referred to Kabarnet for specialised treatment.

By this time, the venom had spread.

Chemutai was delirious, feverish, and drifted in and out of consciousness. Her leg was swollen and had turned black.

“I was in great pain. I lost consciousness many times,” she says.

Chemutai says after four months, doctors at the health facility proposed that her leg be amputated.

But her family could not raise the Sh200,000 required for the amputation plus dressing and medicine. 

A decision was made to take her back home as the family tried to secure funds for the procedure.

Since she returned home, Chemutai has been using a walking stick to aid her movement.

The family still does not have money to pay for the amputation.

“I do not walk a lot due to the pain,” she says.

Chemutai’s case provides a classic example of irony, as most companies have been pitching camp in Baringo to harvest snake venom for their studies.

National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation (Nacosti) CEO Prof Walter Oyawa says it is wrong for researchers to undertake research that does not benefit society once such studies have been converted into something useful.

He says some companies get venom from parts of the country and convert it into something useful without benefiting the community.

“The communities are not getting anything,” Oyawa says.

He, however, did not name the companies.

Oyawa says the Covid-19 pandemic reaffirmed the vital role of science, technology and innovation as global public goods.

“Research regulations are key to the advancement of national security, public safety, and inclusive sustainable development,” he says.

Nacosti is mandated to approve all scientific research in Kenya.

The Nacosti Act says any person undertaking or intending to undertake research in science and technology in the country or who accesses, handles, or transfers any material or technology or moves it within or into the country must apply for the grant of a licence.

Those who violate the rules are liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding Sh5 million, an imprisonment term not exceeding four years, or both.

Oyawa says there is a criteria for any research.

He said the criteria include national security, the lives of Kenyans (public health), cultural and intellectual property rights of communities, international obligations, nature, environment, research ethics, benefit to the country and monitoring and evaluation.

Oyawa was speaking during the first Wildlife Scientific Conference 2023 in Naivasha on September 28.

The conference was organised by the Wildlife Research and Training Institute and was meant to find solutions to challenges facing the iconic species in the country.

The Nacosti boss expresses disappointment that there were 12 cases of researchers who had fake permits.

Oyawa urges WRTI to tighten the noose against the offenders.

Head of bioprospecting at KWS and WRTI in charge of research and development, Kavaka Mukonyi, says it is a requirement for anyone accessing a country’s biological resources to comply with the national laws beginning with the Constitution.

He says other laws include the Wildlife Conservation Management Act, 2013, the Science, Technology, and Innovation Act, 2013, the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA), 1999, and the Traditional Knowledge and Culture Expressions Act 2016.

“The laws regulate the access and utilisation of the country’s biological resources, which include wildlife and the venom from snakes," Mukonyi says.

He says anyone accessing it has to get the necessary permits.  

“We offer licences in line with other approving agencies, such as Nacosti and Nema. Anyone accessing it must first get approval from local communities and counties, what we call prior informed and mutually agreed terms. After you are given approval, you go to Nacosti and Nema,” he says.

Mukonyi says it is illegal for anyone who might have accessed and used venom for other things without these approvals.

“We invoke penalties in all the relevant laws. In the Wildlife Act, it should be Sh10 million for biopiracy, and if you do not have the relevant permit, it should be Sh5 million,” he says.

He says biopiracy is unethical research where one does not have the necessary approvals or licences.

Mukonyi says information about a person or even the country can be destructive.

He says research and permit approvals give access to the generation of data about a nation and that strong compliance and enforcement will minimise misuse of data.

Mukonyi says the documentation and digitisation of indigenous knowledge assets are ongoing.

He says they are focusing on community governance and equipping all the counties with access and benefit sharing so they have the capacity to understand and negotiate for the resources.

“It is a requirement that every community, as defined by traditional knowledge and cultural expression, develop their own bio-cultural protocols so that you can’t go there and access anything without their approval as per their governance.”

Mukonyi says the pilot is in 13 counties but has been rolled out in the six counties of Kilifi, Makueni, Narok, Kisii, Kericho and Murang’a.

“Those communities already have governance structures. They have signed the prior agreement on access to and use of traditional knowledge and intellectual assets.”

Article 4 of the Unesco Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights on Benefit and Harm says that in applying and advancing scientific knowledge and medical practice-associated technologies, direct and indirect benefits to patients, research participants, and other affected individuals should be maximised and any possible harm minimised to such individuals.

Article 15 says benefits resulting from any scientific research and applications should be shared with society as a whole and within the international community, in particular with developing countries.

There are other international conventions and treaties guiding such matters.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international treaty for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of the components of biodiversity, and the equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the use of genetic resources.

With 196 parties, the CBD has near universal participation among countries.

The treaty seeks to address all threats to biodiversity and ecosystem services, including threats from climate change, through scientific assessments, the development of tools, incentives, and processes and  the transfer of technologies and good practices.

Others include the full and active involvement of relevant stakeholders, including indigenous peoples and local communities, youth, women, NGOs, subnational actors, and the business community.

The Nagoya Protocol came into force on October 12, 2014.

It provides a transparent legal framework for the effective implementation of one of the three objectives of the CBD: the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources. The Nagoya Protocol also covers traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources.

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