Progress made in keeping HIV at bay

While there is still no cure for HIV and Aids since it was first reported in the world, strides have been made in improving the lives of people living with the virus.

According to joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS approximately 1.4 million Kenyans are living with HIV and with efforts to fight the disease, 1.2 million people are on treatment. The World Health Organisation says antiretroviral therapy reduces the viral load in patients to undetectable levels making it hard for them to spread the virus.

Testing and counselling services are now available all over including selftesting in one’s comfort. Jacque Wambui has lived with HIV for 17 years. She has reservations regarding the secret self- test method. Wambui says she’s not sure that would have worked for her when she tested HIV positive. “It took me six hours with the doctor who tested me because I had so many questions. How would self-testing have worked for me then?” she said, adding that on the other hand, when one tests themselves, then it remains strictly confidential.

She was speaking at a Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) science café on HIV prevention, where Professor Kenneth Ngure, a researcher on HIV prevention, shared a raft of products ready for use to prevent HIV infection. All products were discussed at the recent virtual International Aids Conference (IAS 2021) in July.

Professor Ngure said researchers are coming up with a vaginal ring that can hit two birds with one stone by preventing both HIV and pregnancy. The ring are designed to last for three months, making it easier to be accepted by users who may not prefer changing it frequently. He was quick to caution that the ring doesn’t prevent other sexually transmitted transmissions. Professor Ngure also talked about other prevention measures including the oral Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

Though findings on the efficacy of HIV prevention commodities are good, governments will be grappling with a number of issues to make the roll out successful in the near future. These include dealing with adherence stigma, barriers of accessibility to health facilities, affordability and ensuring commodities are discreet, especially for users who require consent from their partners/spouses. An example of adherence stigma is avoiding to swallow a pill when with people one may not be comfortable with. Some health facilities may be too far apart and with limited infrastructure.

De-medicalization of the commodities would make it easier for community health workers to deliver them to users at home. Prof Ngure also mentioned integrating commodities with other health services instead of standalone clinics such as the Comprehensive Care Centres will make it easier for people who may not want to be known for the services they are seeking at the health facilities. Researchers are also working reduce the burden of treatment by reducing the frequency of taking medication.

By Ann Mikia

Scientists now testing vaginal ring that can prevent HIV and pregnancy

Seven months after the World Health Organisation (WHO) approved the dapivirine vaginal ring as a new choice for HIV prevention for women at high risk of infection, researchers are now testing a two-in-one method that can prevent both HIV and pregnancy.

The revelation was made during the 11th IAS Conference on HIV Science, which took place virtually from July 18-21, 2021, by Dr Sharon Hillier of the University of Pittburg. IAS Conference on HIV Science is the world’s most influential meeting on HIV research and its applications.

Presenting the IAS conference updates to journalists during a Mesha science café in Nairobi on August 27, Prof Kenneth Ngure, the Chair, Department of Community Health at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), said the new product being tested will be a 90-day dual-purpose vaginal ring, and is being developed by the nonprofit International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM).

According to him, high rates of HIV transmission and unintended pregnancy in some countries spurred the search for prevention methods that could prevent both.

Prof Ngure says the best thing about the ring, which contains dapivirine and levonorgestrel (contraceptive), is that results presented at the conference reported safety and
potential to offer women a discreet and long-acting product to simultaneously meet two major sexual and reproductive health needs, as well as offer greater convenience.

The ring builds on similar technology used for IPM’s monthly dapivirine-only ring, which is the first long-acting, self-initiated, female-only HIV prevention method that has
been shown to safely reduce the risk of HIV infection among sexually active women.

Though the ring currently lasts a month, IPM is also testing one that can last for three months, and results presented by Dr Hillier at the IAS meeting showed it had achieved 3-4 fold higher drug concentrations in the cervix, which could translate to even better HIV protection compared to the monthly ring.

“This milestone marks an important step towards expanding the number of biomedical HIV prevention and contraceptive options available to women. But be ready to wait a little bit longer before the products get to the market because research takes time,” she said.

The dapivirine vaginal ring is similar to Nuvaring, a contraceptive ring that many people are familiar with, which releases hormones to the female reproductive tract to prevent pregnancy. Women can insert the ring themselves and, for a month, it slowly releases dapivirine to protect against HIV infection.

Available information shows that whereas the monthly vaginal ring for HIV prevention only contains 25mg of dapivirine, the dual-purpose ring contains 200mg of dapivirine to allow for its extended release over three months, as well as 320mg of levonorgestrel, a synthetic progestin used in many contraceptives, either alone or in combination with estrogen.

Since the product is still in early-stage development, Ngure says people should expect it in the market in the next few years.

The dapivirine-contraceptive ring is not the only multipurpose prevention technology that is being developed. Other technologies are being developed to prevent unwanted pregnancy and a broad spectrum of STIs. For example, the Population Council is developing a vaginal insert to lower vaginal acidity (pH). This will inactivate sperm and bacteria.
A variant on this product also contains an agent that stops HIV from entering cells.

Altogether, 24 products are in development, most still in pre-clinical laboratory testing, according to the Initiative for Multipurpose Prevention Technologies.

 

By Njeri Murigi

No sufficient protection, findings say of HIV vaccine candidate

Results from Phase 2B of the Imbokodo Study – carried out to test the efficacy and safety of a HIV vaccine candidate among women in five sub-Saharan African countries – shows that the vaccine candidate does not provide sufficient protection against HIV.

The study was conducted among 2,600 plus women in 23 sites across South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi among women aged 18- 35 years at risk of acquiring HIV.

Discussing the findings at a Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) briefing, Mitchel Warren, Executive Director of AVAC said that the efficacy of the vaccine was found to be at 25 percent.

“There was some hint that the vaccine was working very partially,” he said, “ but it is not strong enough to warrant the vaccine continuing in this trial because it is not good enough to get it licensed.”

Also known as the HVTN705/HPX2008, the study involved participants getting four different doses over the first 12 months of their participation.

“The first two were called prime, based on a cold virus, Adenovirus26. Then they received further boost- protein booster- to help stimulate the immune system. Half of the women received this combination, while the other half received four shots of a placebo, that didn’t have any active ingredient,” Warren explained, adding that the women were followed for 24 months after the final shot.

The Imbokodo study found that through 24 months of follow up, 63 of 1,109 participants who received placebo compared to 51 of 1,079 participants who received active vaccine acquired HIV.

In addition, it found that despite the low efficacy, the vaccine was safe and there was no adverse event reported.

There is a parallel trial ongoing dubbed the Mosaico trial being carried out on 3,000 men who have sex with men and transgender individuals in Latin America, US and Europe. The study uses a similar regimen with the same Adenovirus26 platform for the prime vaccine, but using a different form of protein boost.

“It is possible the vaccine could work differently because it is a different boost, addressing a different route of HIV transmission (anal route) or because it is in a different part of the world with different circulating HIV,” Warren said.

According to Warren, the Imbokodo study is a stark reminder of the need to develop a HIV vaccine and the need to scale up prevention products that are already at hand such as the condoms, Oral PrEP, injectable PrEP and vaginal ring among others.

“We have to go all in for the prevention products we have. We have to roll them out with urgency so that people can protect themselves today while we reorient the HIV research agenda,” he said.

The HIV vaccine was being developed in a public-private partnership by Johnson and Johnson in collaboration with National Institutes of Health, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) among others.

“HIV is a unique and complex virus that has long posed unprecedented challenges for vaccine development because of its ability to attack, hijack and evade the human immune system,” Paul Stoffels, Managing Director, Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson said in a statement
during the release of the study findings.

“While we are disappointed the vaccine candidate did not provide a sufficient level of protection against HIV infection in the Imbokodo trial, the study will give us important scientific findings in the ongoing pursuit for a vaccine to prevent HIV.

We continue to stand in solidarity with people living with and vulnerable to HIV, and remain committed to furthering our research against this devastating virus,” he added.

Though it has been 37 years of existing with HIV, developing a vaccine for the virus has been an arduous task mainly due to the HIV strain diversity and the immune evasion strategies of the virus.

According to Ronald C. Desrosiers, Professor of Pathology, Vice-Chair for Research, University of Miami, in an article, the development of the vaccine is made difficult by the biological properties of HIV. This includes the ability of the virus to continuously replicate, to generate and tolerate many mutations in its genetic information as well as the ability to shield itself from recognition by antibodies.

Besides the Imbokodo study, there have been five other trials to find a vaccine for HIV. All of them failed since there was no protection against acquisition of the virus or lowering of viral loads for those infected.

Currently, the PrEPVacc studies are ongoing in Africa- Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa- to test efficacy of a two experimental combination of HIV vaccine regimen while also comparing the effectiveness of a new form of oral PrEP (Descovy) against Truvada. The study which includes both men and women aged 18-40 years at risk of HIV
started in 2018 and will end in 2023.

 

By Sharon Atieno

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Options now available for women to reduce HIV risk

Experts in HIV prevention and treatment have laid bare how rapidly HIV prevention methods are evolving and particularly with a special focus on women, and more so adolescent aged 15 to 19 years.

This is especially important because in 2018, Kenya was flagged as having the third-largest HIV epidemic in the world, alongside Tanzania, with 1.6 million people living with HIV.

In that same year, an estimated 25,000 people died from AIDS related illnesses as per the National AIDS and STI programme (NASCOP) statistics.

Speaking during a media café held on August 27, 2021, Prof Kenneth Ngure of the school of public health, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology said that particularly significant in broadening options for women is how disproportionately they have been affected by HIV/AIDS compared to men.

In 2017, NASCOP estimated that the national adult HIV prevalence rate was at 4.9 percent, with prevalence being higher among women at 5.2 percent than men at 4.5 percent by More so, NASCOP stated that “the national HIV prevalence among males and females aged 15-24 years was estimated at 1.34 percent and 2.61 percent in 2017 respectively,
and overall HIV prevalence was 1.98 percent, which means 184,718 young adults living with HIV in 2017.”

Prof Ngure, also a Governing Council member representing the Africa region at the International AIDS Society (IAS), said HIV prevention has come a long way.

“Before 2012, we only had two HIV prevention models the ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, and Use a Condom) and correct and consistence use of condoms,” he stated.

Informed by research into the limitations of the aforementioned methods, including research by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/ADS (UNAIDS) that revealed that “for many women in developing countries, the ABC approach is of limited value due to their lack of social and economic power. They cannot negotiate abstinence from sex, nor can they insist their partners remain faithful or use a condom.”

Within this context, HIV experts have emphasised that HIV prevention is critical in the fast-track strategy to end AIDS by 2030.

In a science media café by the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) attended by health journalists and experts in the field of HIV prevention and treatment, participants heard about options for intravaginal products, the relevant regulatory approvals, challenges with existing options and what the next generation of intravaginal products will offer.

Prof Ngure discussed how various studies are confirming that adolescents and young women can consistently use the dapivirine vaginal ring and daily pills for HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) when they receive adherence support. He said this evidence was presented at the 11th IAS conference held virtually on July 18-21, 2021.

He added that there were other studies that showed both the ring and oral PrEP were safe for pregnant women and that this was key as HIV prevention using the two prevention
methods was an understudied area.

Scientists say that biological and social factors contribute to high rates of infections among women. They add that the high number of infections among women does not mean they have more risky sexual behaviors compared to men.

In a landmark decision that put a stamp of approval on the vaginal ring, back in January 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended the dapivirine vaginal ring as “a new choice for HIV prevention for women at substantial risk of HIV infection.”

Prof Ngure explained that the ring is a female initiated approach towards reducing the risk of acquiring HIV.

While issuing its recommendation, WHO stated that the ring is worn inside the vagina for a period of 28 days after which it should be replaced by a new one. HIV experts emphasise that recommended vaginal ring is made of silicone and therefore easy to bend and that women can insert the ring themselves.

Once inserted, the ring releases antiretroviral drug, dapivirine into the vagina slowly over a period of 28 days and thereby reducing the risk of acquiring HIV during vaginal sex. Experts emphasise that the ring should be used with other safer sex practices.

Jacqueline Wambui said this is nothing but good news for women. The health rights advocate, and a passionate advocate for HIV prevention and treatment spoke of the need to lower barriers in accessing existing HIV prevention models, especially with regard to both vaginal rings and oral PrEP.

Wambui further spoke of the need to create visibility around challenges in accessing HIV prevention methods that have been introduced or compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

She further waded into the U=U, a global campaign to raise awareness on the importance of HIV care and treatment in saving lives and prevention of new HIV transmission built on the premise that Undetectable (HIV viral load) = Untransmittable.

Wambui said as options broaden, there is a need to scale up and to integrate newer prevention models into “existing prevention and treatment programmes. The effectiveness of PrEP roll up strategies and the need for these programmes to reach the people who need them most cannot be overemphasised.”

She particularly hails the vaginal ring as a discreet option for women to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV on their own terms.

“What I would like to see as an advocate is increased awareness around the vaginal ring as a significant HIV prevention option. We have waited for the ring for a very long time because it has the capacity to turn the wheels of HIV prevention in very big ways,” Wambui said.

 

By Joyce Chimbi

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The search continues, say scientists after setback on HIV vaccine trial

Scientists have played down fears that they may call off the search for a HIV vaccine after a recent study failed to reduce the overall risk of HIV acquisition among women
in five sub-Saharan African countries.

Noting that even though the study did not find the product under test effective as a HIV vaccine, hope still lies on other major trials still ongoing globally.

A major vaccine currently being tested at scale is the Mosaico trial, which is testing a vaccine among transgender people and gay men and other men who have sex with men in the Americas and in Europe.

The scientists were addressing journalists after Johnson & Johnson and partners announced that the Imbokodo study, a large-scale HIV vaccine proof-of-concept trial also known as HVTN 705/ HPX2008, did not significantly reduce the overall risk of HIV acquisition among women in five sub-Saharan African countries.

The report indicated that the vaccine trial, which was being conducted among 2,637 young women aged between 18 and 35 years in five countries (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique) did not provide sufficient protection, with a paltry 25.2 percent efficacy attained.

In a statement to the media, Paul Stoffels, Managing Director, Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson thanked the women who participated in the trial and the company’s partners.

“We are extremely grateful to the women who volunteered for the Imbokodo study, and to our partners, including the people on the frontlines, all of whom are contributing every day to this enduring quest to make HIV history,” he said.

“While we are disappointed that the vaccine candidate did not provide a sufficient level of protection against HIV infection in the Imbokodo trial, the study will give us important scientific findings in the ongoing pursuit for a vaccine to prevent HIV,” he added.

“We must apply the knowledge learned from the Imbokodo trial and continue our efforts to find a vaccine that will be protective against HIV,” added Anthony
Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases which co-funded the study.

Speaking during a media science café by Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA), AVAC Executive Director Mitchell Warren said the HIV vaccine trial was not a total failure. Warren said the trial is important for science research as it directs the next step in learning because it gave quick results and clues that can be used in the other ongoing vaccine trials.

“The Imbokodo study was a beautifully designed study that was safe and well conducted even with the disappointing results,” he said.

Warren said HIV remains a global threat, and a safe, efficacious and accessible HIV vaccine is still needed to contribute towards preventing new infections and
providing a durable end to the scourge. He said there is still hope in the fight against HIV, with two other major trials still ongoing in Africa.

“This is in no way the end of the search for a HIV vaccine. We still hope for a positive outcome from the ongoing Mosaico and PrEPVacc studies,” he said.

The AVAC director further noted that now more than ever, the vaccine field needs diversity and creativity and even more collaboration interns of research and product delivery.

He said there was a need to scale up the delivery of available, safe and effective HIV prevention options, including male and female condoms, voluntary medical male circumcision and daily oral PrEP.

“Other additional prevention options are nearing availability, including the dapivirine vaginal ring and injectable cabotegravir, and several next-generation PrEP options are now entering advanced clinical trials,” he added.

His sentiments were echoed by Ntando Yola, a health advocate, who called for collaborated efforts by all stakeholders in coming up with correct messaging in communicating the science of health.

“How effective we are in sending science health messages to the public will help in curbing misinformation on vaccines not only HIV related,” said Yola.

For 40 years, scientists have been searching for an effective HIV vaccine in vain, given the mutating nature of the disease and the various strains circulating in different regions globally.

In February last year, the United States National Institutes of Health announced that its HVTN 702 clinical trial of an HIV vaccine, also known as Uhambo, had been stopped. While
no safety concerns were found during the trial, the independent data and safety monitoring board found that the vaccine was ineffective in preventing HIV transmission.

The trial, conducted at 14 sites across South Africa, followed more than 5400 HIV-negative 18–35-year-olds over 18 months.

The participants received six injections during the six-month period, either the vaccine or a placebo. An analysis undertaken after at least 60% of the participants had been in the study for more than 18 months showed that there were 129 HIV infections among the people who had the vaccine, while 123 people who had the placebo became infected.

 

By Christine Ochogo

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Forests key in fighting poverty – University Don

By Christine Ochogo, November 18, 2020- christawine@gmail.com

African governments have been urged to protect forests as they are key in poverty eradication.

According to Dr Gillian Kabwe, a senior lecturer at Copperbelt University, Kitwe, Zambia authorities must fight overexploitation of these natural resources in a bid to fight deforestation often fuelled by the vicious cycle of poverty.

“Deforestation plays two roles, on one hand it helps in eradication of poverty among dependent communities in food and income generation like charcoal burning, firewood among others but on the other hand  forests are being destroyed  to clear land for agriculture, ranching and development, unsustainable logging for timber. All these human activities among others in the long run contribute to nature decline,” added Dr Kabwe.

The university done was speaking during the Fourth African Conference of Science Journalists organized by Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA).

She added that a recently released global assessment report by International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), 2020 on Forests, Trees and the Eradication of Poverty: Potential and Limitations had found out that today forests contribute to about 25 per cent of household income for the poor.

Dr Kabwe told the conference that poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity and globally with one out of every 10 people living in extreme poverty.

While presenting at the virtual conference that brought on board scientists, experts and journalists from across Africa continent, the don added that poverty eradication has found a place at the top of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“Most people living in the rural areas are disadvantaged on issues of value addition on forest products even though key forest resources are known by local communities, acquiring license is almost impossible and therefore they cannot properly trade on product like timber, charcoal, these among other challenges,” she observed.

She regretted that women are often most impacted by poverty and forest loss therefore it would be important that they be integrated in programs of engagement on issues of community based forest management.

“In the rural setups women are endowed with knowledge about beneficial forest resources as they are the ones who provide for everyday family needs, they fetch firewood, fetch water, do cultivation and therefore they understand forest issues well enough,” stressed Dr Kabwe adding that it is important to create a platform for them to express themselves.

She asked journalists to be objective in reporting forestry and poverty issues by highlighting regularly issues regarding policies and regulations on the use of forest products, promote contribution of forests in poverty reduction and amplify existing information on the value of forest resources and their potential.

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New maize variety set to uplift farmers’ fortunes in Africa

By Christine Ochogo I christawine@gmail.com

For the second day in a row, Jerry Oyoo, a western Kenyan farmer from Nyagowa Village, Karachuonyo Constituency has just returned home with a sack of maize from his Kimira wetland farm.

“This is a huge waste of time, energy and money,” Mr Oyoo tells me sounding as if he needs some psycho-social support.

“I spent Ksh 5000 (USD50) to pay for the tractor man to till my land. I spent a further Ksh 3000 (USD30) to pay farm labourers for the first weeding plus a further Ksh 2500 (USD25) for the second weeding, and today I have just paid Ksh 1000 (USD10) to helpers to harvest the produce,” he says looking forlorn and dejected.

In all his calculations he spent Ksh 11,500 (USD115) only to return home with three sacks of maize all valued at Ksh 9,000 (USD90). As he brought home his last sack of maize harvest, Oyoo had just incurred a loss of Ksh 2500 (USD 25) without taking into consideration other inputs and time spent on the farm.

While addressing journalists allied to the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) in a virtual conference, Dr Sylvester Oikeh, a maize scientist, says farmers like Oyoo need not give up on farming asserting that biotechnology is the way to go in addressing the challenges brought along by effects of climate change, ever growing population leading to shrinking land for cultivation and biological challenges like pests and diseases. He added that biotechnology remains a strong investment for farmers like Oyoo.

The conference brought together 100 journalists from 30 African countries.

“Globally, for each dollar invested in biotech crop seeds, farmers gained an average $3.49. In 2016, farmers in developing countries received $5.06 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds, whereas farmers in developed countries received $2.70 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds,” Dr Oikeh said.

To show that scientists are not sleeping on the job, the maize guru said that his organisation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation with other partners such as the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation  (KALRO) have been working towards getting transgenic drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties to farmers to enhance food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We work on a project called TELA maize which seeks to ensure farmers who access the variety will be able to mitigate effects of climate change especially moderate drought and losses to insects such as stem borers and fall armyworm,” said Dr. Oikeh who is the Project Manager at AATF.

Dr. Oikeh spoke on the Status on development and commercialization of transgenic TELA maize for African farmers in a virtual conference that brought together nearly 200 science journalists from 30 African countries and beyond to discuss conservation, climate change, agriculture, and health to bolster factual reporting on science.

“When farmers have access to the TELA maize varieties they will be able to mitigate effects of climate change especially moderate drought and losses to insects such as stem borers and fall armyworm,” said the expert who boasts of over 30 years research trail on maize in the continent.

TELA Bt maize hybrid varieties were released to smallholder farmers in South Africa in 2016 and has been granted environmental release to proceed to national performance trials in Kenya.

“National performance trials (NPTs) are carried out in Kenya by the Kenya Plant Health and Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) to determine the agronomic potential and adaptability of new varieties relative to those currently in the market,” said Dr Mwimali Murenga from KALRO. He added that they have already planted in Alupe, Kakamega and Kibos. Other sites Embu, Mwea and thika will be planted from mid Oct 2020 during the short rains season.

The NPTs are carried out to evaluate maize hybrids that have potential for commercialization. Experimental material under test are usually compared to those in the market. Several sites from a minimum of 6 sites to a maximum 10 sites are usually planted depending on the growing zones, added Dr Murenga.

Bt maize gave positive and significant effect on yield across varieties and trials with 52 per cent yield advantage over non-Bt maize in Kenya and Uganda,” said Dr. Oikeh, noting that full adoption of Bt maize in Kenya could save the country a whopping 400,000 tonnes equivalent to US 90 million that is lost to stemborer damage annually.

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a microbe naturally found in soil and that has been used as a biological pesticide for several decades to control insect damage mostly in the horticulture industry. Usually used as a spray, scientists found a way to incorporate Bt proteins (genes) into the plant to give the plant protection against certain insect pests such as stem borer and fall armyworm without spraying the plant.

While responding to a question on safety concerns on the technology, Dr. Oikeh re-affirmed the safety of biotech products, noting that farmers from other regions across the world are enjoying the benefits of the technology.

“Several global authorities including World Health Organization (WHO); Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and many Academies of Sciences have all indicated the GM food that have been evaluated and passed through regulatory scrutiny and approved are safe to eat,” he emphasized.

In Africa, nine countries including Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria and Sudan have approved and released transgenic cotton, cowpea, maize and soybean. Globally, 67 countries are either growing or trading with biotech crops.

The TELA Maize Project works with governments in seven African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda – to deliver the new TELA maize varieties to farmers. All TELA maize varieties will be made available to smallholder farmers through local seed companies after assessment by national authorities according to the country’s regulatory requirements.

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Journalists urged to dispel myths on vaccine trials in Africa

By Mike MwanikI I mikemwaniki2016@gmail.com 

A leading HIV investigator in Kenya has urged journalists to be at the forefront in dispelling the existing myths and misconceptions on vaccine trials among people living in African countries. 

Prof Omu Anzala described as a “fallacy” allegations by some unscrupulous people — especially on social media — who are peddling claims that Africans are being targeted as “guinea pigs” by the West during such trials. 

The virologist-cum-immunologist was speaking during a webinar held in May titled “Understanding the Role of Africa in COVID-19 Vaccine Research.” 

The virtual meeting, which was co-organized by IAVI; Media for Environment, Science, Health, and Agriculture (MESHA), and Internews attracted African-based journalists and scientists and was moderated by MESHA’s secretary, Aghan Daniel. 

“As a professional, I feel sad when people make such wild, unsubstantiated claims and allegations when diseases such as cervical cancer, malaria, and Ebola continue killing a majority of our people in the continent,” Prof Anzala observed. 

“I have been conducting HIV clinical trials for over 20 years and I reassure you that vaccines are highly regulated and cannot, therefore, cause major adverse effects (to recipients). As Africans, we should steer away from such negativity,” he noted.

Prof Anzala is one of the founders of the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI)—Institute of Clinical Research (KAVI-ICR) which was established in 2001 where he serves as the current director. He was Co-Principal Investigator (PI) of the first HIV vaccine trial in Kenya—the second in Africa—using a DNA plasmid. 

According to the virologist, a recent study shows that 90 percent of health workers in Kenya are ready to be enrolled in testing for a COVID-19 vaccine safety if such a request was made to them. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation— which is the biggest funder of vaccines in the world—says that by April 9, 2020, 115 different COVID19 vaccine candidates were in the development pipeline “with eight to 10 of those looking particularly promising.”

Prof Anzala says as the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate, African scientists also have a role to play in searching for solutions against the global pandemic which by July 6, 2020, had infected 11.6m people, killed nearly 537,000 with 6.27m others recovering. 

“The current precautionary measures to avoid COVID-19 infection through washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks in public places is just a stop-gap measure,” he warned.

“The only viable solution for the control of the virus is a vaccine as we are all susceptible to COVID-19,” added the Professor. 

Vaccines offer protection from disease or infection by eliciting a long-lasting immune response. Fielding questions from journalists, Prof Anzala urged African countries to combat coronavirus by establishing mechanisms and actions that will respond to the outbreak; establishing teams that will monitor the outbreak and fund research to understand COVID-19/SARS-COV2 evolution (by using locally gathered data to inform the response to the outbreak). 

Prof Anzala observed: “We are all learning as we go along. There are no experts (on the pandemic) as its only five months old”. 

At the same time, the virologist announced that Kenya will be among 70 countries that will participate in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Solidarity clinical trial for COVID-19 treatments. Solidarity Trial is an international clinical trial to help find an effective treatment for COVID-19, launched by WHO and partners. It will compare for treatment options against the standard of care, to assess their relative effectiveness against COVID-19.

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Malawi farmers record huge harvest from genetically modified cotton

By Suzgo Chitete I chitetesuzgo@gmail.com

After years of research and scientific approvals, the Malawi government in November last year released genetically modified cotton seeds for commercial cultivation. 

The farmers who planted Bt cotton for the first time in the last growing season took a gamble to depart from tradition.

France Thole, a cotton farmer in Chikwawa, Southern Malawi, was among the few farmers who were part of the field trials of the new cotton varieties, which have performed wonders elsewhere.

Through the trials, farmers had a feel of the new technology and were convinced this could be the way to go. But it was a real gamble, according to Thole.

“There was a lot of negativity from community members when we told them we wanted to try Bt cotton. In as much as we were convinced that the new cotton variety was better than the traditional seeds, we were still not sure if we would be successful,” says Thole, 60, who has been growing cotton for almost half his age. 

 “I can tell you the quality of the new variety is impressive; one plant gives you up to 150 bolls when the local variety would give 40-50 bolls. The cotton is thick and good looking.”  

Bt cotton seed has been genetically engineered to make the crop resistant to bollworm. Scientists say this resistance significantly reduces the cost of production as one does not need pesticides now and again. 

“If you follow instructions properly you gain more with this new variety. You can produce up to 3,000  bags per hectare while the old variety would you give you 1,000 -1,500 and yet it is also labor intensive because it requires frequent spraying of pesticides,” says Allan Tchalison, another farmer in the Lowershire zone.

Apart from his modern, fully electrified house, some herds of cattle, chickens, and goats, Tchalison sponsors his grandchildren’s education. His son’s daughter is in the second year pursuing an engineering course at the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic. Others are in secondary schools.

Tchalison vouches for Bt cotton as the best so far but pleads for improved extension work. He says at this stage farmers need close supervision because of their unfamiliarity with the new technology, which he believes is a game-changer if well handled.

Another cotton farmer, Mwayi Joseph Chirwa, a primary school teacher in Salima, Central of Malawi, 120 kilometers from the Capital Lilongwe, attests to the scientific claim that Bt cotton significantly reduces the cost of production and has a high yield. She estimates that from her piece of land she has been able to harvest double the usual yield.

“I followed instructions throughout, based on leaflets that I was given and also the advice from the extension workers but I could have missed a step or two…because it is new. I think if one follows the guidelines to the letter they can get more than double,” said Chirwa.

Malawi is among new entrants in a growing list of countries that have commercialized cotton in Africa which include South Africa, Ethiopia and Sudan are other examples. Kenya is yet to get its first harvest and so is Nigeria though they have commercialized the crop too. According to the Seed Trade Association of Malawi, 20,000 Malawian farmers planted the Bt cotton seed last season which just ended last month. 

Cotton is one of the strategic crops in the national export strategy and if well managed, the genetically modified variety can significantly improve productivity, which has dropped at an alarming rate due to lack of investment.

With an allocation of K1.6 billion (USD2.2 million) in the 2011/12 financial year, Malawi was able to produce a record of 100,000 metric tonnes that year. Over the years,  this figure has drastically dropped;  the Cotton Council of Malawi estimates that on average the country is now producing about 15,000 MT per year, which rakes in K10 billion (USD13.5 million) against a ginning capacity of 600,000 metric tonnes. With the adoption of the new technology in Malawi, it is estimated that the country will soon produce nearly 40,000 MT. 

According to the Chairman of STAM, Mr. John Lungu, stakeholders are now putting their heads together to ensure that the market for the bumper harvest is secured to ensure that farmers benefit wholly from their sweat.

“We hope the government may consider subsidizing the seeds just to boost cotton farming in Malawi. With this new variety which has shown that it has a higher yield, we expect more farmers to come on board and adopt it. So my appeal to government is to liaise with the seed making company to make the seeds available at an affordable price,” pleaded Rodgers Manjawira another farmer from Salima.

The African Institute of Corporate Citizenship (AICC), an NGO which has been pushing for improved cotton in Malawi, equally thinks one way of helping farmers is to have the seeds for Bt cotton subsidized and also strengthen extension work so that farmers have up to date information on Bt cotton.  

AICC Chief Executive Officer, Felix Lombe, said: “We need to improve cotton production because it is a strategic crop for exports. The economy stands to benefit from cotton which has a ready market locally and internationally.”  

University students develop App for social challenges

By Lisbeth Kageni I kageni@uonbi.ac.ke

University of Nairobi students have developed a mobile phone app through which they can access relevant information to address their challenges. 

The app dubbed RADA was developed by 12 students with the help of the university’s Centre for HIV Prevention and Research (CHIVPR), UNESCO, and Sexual and Reproductive Health Alliance (SRHRA). 

 The app guarantees privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity for the users and tackles issues such as mental health, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortion, substance and alcohol abuse, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV and Aids.

The students noted that these issues have led to school dropouts and needed to be addressed urgently. After designing and developing the app prototype, the students, who had little or no knowledge in IT, were trained to code by UNESCO.

The content was developed with the assistance of CHIVPR, UNESCO, and SRHRA, and validated by relevant stakeholder s, including the Ministry of Health through the Department of Reproductive Health, the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA), JHPIEGO and the National AIDS and STI Control Council (NASCOP), among others.

 During this process, it was apparent that the app needed to address other relevant issues beyond the health domain, and therefore content on security, socio-economic matters, including job opportunities, were added.

The final android phone app was launched on June 13, 2019, during the Nairobi Innovation Week. Today, with the support of UNESCO, RADA has been disseminated to all University of Nairobi campuses and to four other universities, namely Kenyatta, South Eastern, Masinde Muliro, and Pwani. Currently, counseling services are available to University students but this will change soon to accommodate all young people of appropriate age.

The app is available to everyone who is able to download it from the play store at no fee.