• Health R&D and strong regulatory systems are key to winning war on pandemic
• They enable rapid deploying of new cures, diagnostic tools, therapeutics and vaccines
When the coronavirus disease was first reported in China, it quickly attracted global attention for its rapid spread and high mortality rate. However, many people saw Covid-19 as a far-off disease with little impact on African countries.
As we now know, many countries acted much too slowly in putting prevention measures in place, and this delay has allowed the disease to spread to nearly every country. As leaders around the world race to catch up to this disease, policymakers in Kenya have an opportunity to not only respond to the current crisis but also invest in health security infrastructure, including a suite of tools to prevent future pandemics.
The rapid spread of Covid-19 demonstrates that we do not have the necessary lifesaving systems and tools we need to detect and respond to outbreaks when a new threat emerges; tools like diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
Kenya has been a leader among African states in making strong commitments to research and development (R&D) for health products. However, those commitments have not always been followed with the funding necessary to bring them into action. Equally, the introduction of medical products into the market is made difficult by regulatory systems that are not designed to be nimble to emergent issues/disease.
As we think about how to meet the current need and respond to future pandemics, Kenya must deliver on past promises by investing in health R&D and strengthening regulatory systems to allow for rapid deployment of new medicines, diagnostic tools, therapeutics and vaccines. Covid-19 is proving that during global pandemics, many of the donor countries Kenya has depended on for so long may be unable to offer support, as they are equally stretched addressing the plight of their own citizens.
The Kenyan government has already committed to making global health R&D a priority — after the African Union heads of state committed to investing at least 1 per cent of their GDP in R&D, the Kenyan government went one step further, committing 2 per cent of GDP to the same.
Then in 2017, Kenyan lawmakers passed the Health Act, declaring that 30 per cent of health expenditure should be allocated to health R&D. Yet still, current funding is well below this level. There remains a large disconnect in Kenya between policies passed and policies implemented. This mismatch often translates to poor prioritisation and low resource allocation for health R&D.
Covid-19 will not be the last epidemic threat we face. The actions we take now — and the crucial lessons we learn from Covid-19 — will determine whether future disease outbreaks grow to disastrous global pandemics.
As Covid-19 has reminded us, diseases don’t respect borders. A coordinated approach, including sharing of intelligence and technical expertise to develop viable R&D solutions, is critical to safeguarding global health security. Kenya must develop preparedness plans that allow for the rapid activation of R&D activities during epidemics.
Equally, to strengthen regulatory systems, Kenya should sign the Africa Medicines Agency treaty that would nurture standardisation of evaluation and streamline the speedy introduction of products into the market.
To drive forward Kenya’s readiness to address pandemics such as Covid-19, we strongly recommend that the government takes the following crucial actions:
First, Parliament, the Treasury and the Education and Health ministries must work together to effectively and progressively fund health research, including investing in research for product development, supporting clinical trials, strengthening local manufacturing and ensuring support for scale-up of proven products.
Secondly, policymakers must strengthen the regulatory system, including through the passage of the Kenya Foods and Drug Authority (KFDA) bill and adoption of the Africa Medicines Agency treaty. These policies would nurture standardisation in evaluating applications dossiers for medical products, and would enable efficient approval of medical products to ensure they quickly reach those who need them most.
Thirdly, build the capacity of Kenya’s research systems, including for Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and other research institutions, and create opportunities for technology transfers.
And fourthly, fully implement the Research for Health Policy and the Research for Health Priorities to spur and promote local production of medical products.
We call upon the country’s leadership to prioritise these key areas during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. These are important steps to speed Kenya’s transformation into a provider of unique, innovative health solutions tailored to our own needs and the needs of our region.
Johnpaul Omollo is the Advocacy and Public Policy Officer, PATH