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Dr. Wayengera: The man behind Uganda's COVID-19 testing kits

By Jacky Achan

Added 11th May 2020 11:17 AM

Testing is key for diagnosing and tracking the magnitude of the disease to know how many people have been infected or could infect others.

Dr. Wayengera: The man behind Uganda's COVID-19 testing kits

Wayengera is behind the country's effort to manufacture test kits. Courtesy photo

Testing is key for diagnosing and tracking the magnitude of the disease to know how many people have been infected or could infect others.

While people in Uganda have been asked to stay at home to contain the spread of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), a few others must continue working to find answers to the pandemic.

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across the world. Uganda, just like most countries globally, is relying on aggressive screening and testing as the best approach to determine whether the virus is present in communities, and how far it has spread.

Testing is key for diagnosing and tracking the magnitude of the disease to know how many people have been infected or could infect others.

But, the high global demand for testing kits has strained supply. 

Production and delivery of testing kits to meet demand is short. In turn, it has led to a rise in fake kits and a race to develop standardized, rapid, and accurate diagnostic tests.

Currently, Uganda is able to conduct over 2000 tests daily, and over 40, 000 tests have been carried out in total, which is much higher than tests conducted by any other East African country. But in South Korea alone, nearly 20,000 people are tested daily. 

But not to worry, the number of tests could soon go much higher as Dr. Misaki Wayengera a Clinical Geneticist, Immunologist, and Virologist along with a team of other Ugandan scientists, are developing a cheaper COVID-19 testing kit that could deliver results in a minute or two. For him, it is about offering a homegrown solution to the testing gap.

Love For Science and Country 

The innovation is not the first for Wayengera, he also developed the pan-filovirus rapid diagnostic test, a paper-strip test that can detect the Ebola and Marburg viruses in five minutes.

Wayengera is a towering and vibrant figure among his peers. He does not hesitate to share knowledge when he gives his time and is always happy to talk about science.

"When I joined medical school, my friends were reading books to pass, I wanted to bring about change," he told a Ugandan television in an interview.

"He is patriotic, and always talks about how his works should benefit the country, and develop Africa for Africans. His patriotism is rare to find among professionals," says Ian Peter Busuulwa a digital communications officer with Science Stories Africa and a biotechnologist who engages in agricultural research and science.

He is also passionate about sharing knowledge. "He could be in some leading global pharmaceutical company earning lots of money, but Wanyengera finds it necessary to stay in Uganda, working with Makerere University to pass on knowledge to young scientists," he adds.

Who is Dr. Wanyengera

Wayengera is a medical doctor with graduate training, Masters of Science (MSc), Fellowship, and Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in a diverse array of scientific fields including Immunology, Vaccinology, Clinical Microbiology, Genetics, and Filovirology. 

It was in 2000 while a medical student, that he picked interest in studying filoviruses that can cause severe hemorrhagic fever in humans and non-human primates.

In 2007 while studying genomes of filoviruses, Wayengera focused his energy on the understanding of Ebola and Marburg viruses with targets for both vaccine and diagnostic development. He successfully developed a rapid testing kit for both viruses.

Wayengera also holds expert skills-training in Bioentrepeneurship and Research and Development. 

Serving, Breaking Boundaries 

Over the past 10 years, he has served as In-Charge of the Unit of Genetics and Genomics (a super-specialized referral centre for children and adults born with rare, Mendelian disease at the Mulago National Reference and Teaching Hospital Complex, Kampala, Uganda. 

He is also In-Charge of the Unit of Genetic and Genomics, Department of Immunology and Molecular Biology at School of Biomedical Sciences, College of Health Sciences at Makerere University.

Wayengera is also a member of the African Society for Human Genetics (AfSHG) and Ex-Chair of the Education and Coordinated Working Group (ECTWG) of the H3Africa Consortium that empowers African Researchers to be competitive in genomic sciences and nurtures effective collaboration.

"My research interests' center on pathogens (virus, bacterium and other microorganisms that can cause disease) with a focus on identifying new its molecular targets (minute particles) for research and development of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines," he says.

Together with his team, Wayengera has not only built the necessary expertise and experience but also established a network of partners from across the academia, industry, and public-private partnerships. 

For this work and its impact on the 2013 to 2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Wayengera was listed as the 57th of the 100 most influential Africans of 2015.

Last year (2019), his team won the 1st Prize for the World Health Organisation (WHO) innovation Challenge (Product Development), and he was nominated as REACH Award Finalist - Reaching the Last Mile (REACH/RLM).

Wayengera is currently (2019-2020) The World Academy of Sciences -Sub Saharan Africa Regional Partner (TWAS-SAREP) Young Scientist award winner (Infectious Diseases).

He is also the Chair of the COVID-19 scientific committee in Uganda leading the response to the coronavirus.

Providing Solutions 

"I am excited Dr. Wayengera and his team are in the process of developing a testing kit for COVID-19. There is a huge challenge globally for testing kits. We look forward to this innovation closing this gap. He did the same for Ebola," says Professor Rhoda Wanyenze a Physician, Public Health Consultant, and Dean Makerere University School of Public Health.

"It is always good to see scientists use their knowledge to develop innovations that address the critical aspects of health for our society. We keep getting epidemics. Right now besides COVID-19, neighbours DR Congo also have Ebola in the town of Beni," she says.

Professor Wanyenze says Wayengera is working on critical matters developing diagnostics. The STDS-Agx (swab tube dipstick agglutination) COVID-19 test kit developed by Wayengera's team can produce results in a minute or two, compared to the four-to-six hours it takes to get results from the WHO accredited Reverse transcription-polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) based tests that quantitate changes in gene expression, now in use.

Each kit will cost an estimated US$1.07 (about sh4,000), making testing affordable. It is intended for use in rural settings, which often lack laboratory capacity or expertise, says Wayengera.

It is a home-based solution to the evident scarcity of resources for the management of this pandemic globally. "Everyone is running to the market and the difference in economic prowess means poor countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa are left with nothing. We must innovate around these shortages to fight the pandemic," he says.

The Makerere University research team expects to have a prototype ready to be put into use next month, pending expert validations.

Three versions of the test kit are being developed. The tests will work by generating solid particles from the reaction of the virus with antibodies or vice versa.

The work has been seed funded by about US$22,000 from the Makerere University Research and Innovation Fund.

Wayengera says an estimated $272,000 will be required to develop a prototype and over $ 0.5million will be needed to mass-produce the kits. 

Additional costs will also be incurred for regulatory approval, intellectual property protection, and commercialisation.

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