A section of Scientists have explained to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that developing a vaccine against COVID-19 will take longer than earlier expected, given the different processes involved.
The scientists appeared before the committee alongside officials from the former Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation regarding a recent forensic investigation carried out by the Auditor General regarding COVID-19 funds expended in the financial years 2019/2020 and 2020/2021.
A resolution of Parliament informed the forensic investigation on a report of the Parliamentary Taskforce on the National COVID-19 Response which requested an investigation on COVID-19 funds.
The main objective of the forensic investigation was to ascertain whether all COVID-19-related spending was applied appropriately in accordance with existing laws, policies, and guidelines, whether there was any loss in expenditure and clarify responsible officers, and to make recommendations for better use of COVID-19 related funds.
Auditor General indicates sh31billion spent
The Auditor General indicates that in the financial year 2020/2021, the Ministry received supplementary funding of 31.032 billion which was to support the 23 selected projects of scientists and innovators engaged in Covid-19 scientific research. The money comprised 15.78 billion for the procurement of specialized machinery and equipment and 15.24 billion for operational costs towards the development of vaccines as well as drug diagnostics.
In their submission to the committee, the scientists said that the establishment of a national capacity to respond to pandemics is a milestone in the development of vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine.
Professor Vinand Mukatabala Nantulya, the Busitema University Chancellor and Principal Investigator, Zygen Biotech said that the country has so far established a national capacity to respond to epidemics by a generation of development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.
“I alerted the President that he should not think that we shall get a vaccine before developed countries because they were already ahead. What was important was to establish a national capacity to respond because Covid-19 is not the last outbreak we are going to get,” said Nantulya.
He added that COVID-19 will come in periodic attacks and that it is important that the country continues the work on the development of vaccines, including those against other variants which are going to emerge.
Dr Otala challenges scientists
However, Dr. Emmanuel Otala, the West Budama South MP and PAC Central Government Chairperson Medard Lubega Sseggona challenged Nantulya that the country already had a research system before COVID-19 and that the process of developing a vaccine should not take a long time.
Dr Micheal Bukenya, the Bukuya County MP also recounted the President’s repeated promises to the country during the COVID-19 pandemic about the process of developing a vaccine and that it would come soon.
Dr Grace Nambatya, the Director of the Natural Therapeutic Institute in Mulago Hospital said that a herbal product to treat COVID-19 has been tried out on 124 patients, at the lung institute. She said that this is the first-ever clinical trial on natural therapy in the country.
Nambatya said that if government had not availed COVID-19 funding, there was no way they would have come up with the product.
Principal Investigator of Novel Advenovector at the Medical Research Council, Sheila Belinda also told MPs that there is a vaccine candidate and pre-clinical trials on the COVID-19 vaccines are scheduled to start in April.
Dr. Jennifer Serwanga, the Assistant Director at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) said that the development of the vaccine stalled due to complexities in accessing green monkey cells which are used to multiply the virus.
“You cannot access many of these biological things because they do not come to this part of the world. It took six months for us to get the green monkey cells and we are the first ones in Africa to get them. We have stocks of them, we now have enough vile of the viruses,” said Dr. Serwanga.
She assured the committee that Ugandan scientists have the capacity to develop vaccines but urged the government to plan for the expansion of vaccine development facilities and invest in equipment.
MP Ssegonna questioned the scientists’ capacity to develop vaccines to respond to other epidemics, given the delay in developing the COVID-19 vaccine.
“If you have not developed the vaccine for COVID-19 which we have seen and whose characteristics you have already observed, how do you assure us that you have now developed the capacity to manage other emergencies,” Ssegonna asked.
MP Otaala advised that the scientists exploit existing systems of research, saying that the ad hoc reaction to pandemics cannot help the country.