Covid-19 battle at stake as agencies fight over billions

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Kenya Medical Research Institute headquarters in Ngumo, Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE

A battle for control of billions of shillings meant for the coronavirus fight between two State agencies has left the government stuck with the money as the disease spreads across the country.

Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and the National Influenza Centre are embroiled in a tug of war over who has the right to lead the war against Covid-19, more than a month since the disease was first reported in the country.

At stake is $60 million (Sh6 billion) received by the government from the World Bank early this month.

The funds were to help in fighting the disease, but to date, the money is still stuck with the government as officials from Kemri and the National Influenza Centre try to undercut each other hoping to get the largest share of the money.

When you consider the fact that Parliament on Wednesday approved Sh40 billion for the Covid-19 battle, it looks like the turf wars between the two agencies are just beginning.

The war has already had its first casualty after the government demoted Dr Joel Lutomiah, the director of the Centre for Virus Research at Kemri.

TESTING CAPACITY

However, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe told Parliament that Dr Lutomiah’s demotion — which caused an uproar over the weekend — has been politicised and blown out of proportion.

“The circumstances under which he was transferred are known to the chief executive. This is politics, not management issues. I’ve never seen issues of management making it to the front pages,” Mr Kagwe said.

Insiders have, however, told the Nation that Kemri is dragging its feet in releasing Covid-19 test results in order to arm-twist the government into giving it a share of the Sh6 billion.

The first release was Sh1 billion, which has since been budgeted for. An additional Sh5 billion given in the second phase is yet to be spent.

Some Sh2.66 billion of the Sh5 billion is being processed for access through the Integrated Finance Management System (Ifmis) upon finalisation of supplementary budget.

Other sources told Nation that Dr Lutomiah, who is still waiting for his new posting, was demoted because he was unwilling to play ball with tenderpreneurs, who are slavering for a share of the Sh5 billion.

Caught up in the turf wars, Treasury has decided to hold onto the money. This comes as Kenyans still wait for mass testing for the disease.

Uganda, whose economy is far smaller than Kenya’s, has a testing capacity of 2,500 per day, Tanzania has 1,000 and Ethiopia 1,500. Kenya is testing 500 cases per day on average. The highest recorded testing done in 24 hours in Kenya was 1,790 a week ago.

FUNDS EXHAUSTED

Meanwhile, the government is splashing millions of that money on nondescript expenses like snacks, airtime and accommodation for health workers.

In his presentation to Parliament, Mr Kagwe said they had spent Sh6 million as airtime allowance for 500 staff members at the rate of Sh4,000 each per month for three months.

The ministry also allocated Sh10 million for tea and snacks, Sh42 million for leasing 15 ambulances, Sh13.5 million for the accommodation of 30 healthcare workers needing quarantine services for 90 days and Sh14 million for maintenance and fuelling of 30 vehicles.

Other allocations were Sh2.5 million for stationery (Sh6.5 million has already been used for this expenditure), Sh70 million for communications and Sh132 million to procure Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs).

Kemri says it has run out of money and needs at least Sh790 million to carry out its Covid-19 work.

Apart from taxpayers, the institution is also funded by several donors like the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.

“The institute has exhausted most of the reagents and materials being utilised in screening and testing for the virus,” Kemri Managing Director Yeri Kombe said on Tuesday

The National Influenza Centre, which is domiciled at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), falls under the National Public Health Laboratories, while Kemri is a parastatal with an annual budget of about Sh2 billion.

POWER STRUGGLE

The two agencies are responsible for carrying out research for human health in Kenya, but the National Influenza Centre was set up in 2014 by the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to specifically monitor bird flu.

At that time, the whole world was facing the Avian flu pandemic. Since Kenya is geographically located on a migratory route for birds, the CDC offered to fund the centre, but later ceded control of the National Influenza Centre to the government.

Initially, the government opted to give the responsibility of dealing with the coronavirus to the National Influenza Centre.

Along the way, the favour tilted to Kemri since it has a wider reach, has better equipment and is more funded.

However, officials at the National Influenza Centre insist that the matter falls in their docket.

“This is not about the mismanagement of funds. This is typically about the money that is yet to be released for Covid-19 testing,” said an official from the centre.

However, another Kemri official said they are better placed to test for the virus. “We’ve the machines and the capacity and can do the tests as compared to others. Why is the interest shifting to the influenza centre, which has been lying idle for lack of funding, yet Kemri has for years been mandated to do research in the country?” he posed.

Government is, however, in a Catch 22 situation since the US has a huge say on the operations of the World Bank, which advanced Kenya the Sh6 billion. Giving Kemri the money will put Nairobi at loggerheads with Washington, DC.

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