Why a Kenyan Bishop is Concerned about Trials of COVID-19 Vaccine on Kenyans

Bishop James Maria Wainaina of Kenya’s Murang’a Diocese.
Credit: Mt Kenya TV

Reports that potential COVID-19 drugs and vaccine could be tried on Kenyans have attracted criticism from citizens of the East African nation, including a Catholic Bishop who, in a statement, has explained why such alleged trials would undermine the dignity of Kenyans and amount to a breach of the country’s constitution.

“The media has been awash with many messages and video clips talking about the intentions of foreign research agencies to come to Kenya to test some Coronavirus vaccines and drugs,” Bishop James Maria Wainaina of Kenya’s Murang’a Diocese stated Thursday, May 7.

Referencing the alleged plans to try the drugs in Kenya, Bishop Wainaina who was launching the Murang’a Diocesan COVID-19 Response added, “This matter has left many Kenyans wondering whether the circulating information has been true or not.”

He made particular reference to the May 5 front page report by Kenya’s highest circulation newspaper, Daily Nation, which claimed that “local researchers participating in an international study are seeking final approval from agencies to test three drugs on Kenyans.”

This Daily Nation report, Bishop Wainaina noted, seems a confirmation of the “many messages and video clips” that have been circulating about the human trials of potential COVID-19 drugs and vaccine.

For one, the Kenyan Prelate is concerned because Kenyans make up a disproportionate number of the positive cases of COVID-19 globally with hundreds of confirmed cases compared to thousands in other countries of the world including African nations.

As of May 7, Kenya had recorded 607cases of COVID-19 including 197 recoveries and 29 deaths. There are at least 49,155 confirmed cases across Africa, which include more than 16,320 recoveries compared to over 3.84 million confirmed cases across the globe and at least 1.28 million people who have recovered from the disease.

“Kenya is not the worst hit country in Africa and in the world,” the Bishop noted.

He questions the reason behind the choice of Kenya and writes, “One is left wondering about the wisdom of choosing Kenya as the testing ground for the vaccines and drugs.”

Secondly, the lack of transparency and, if the media reports are true, an attempt to use Kenyans for the human trial amounts to a breach of the new constitutional dispensation that demands public participation on such a matter among other requirements, the Kenyan Bishop has argued.

“The fact that this matter was circulating in the media and the Government failed to address it openly leaves the public with more questions than answers,” Bishop Wainaina noted in his May 7 statement.

According to the Daily Nation newspaper report, the Principal Investigator in the study, Dr. Loice Achieng Ombajo said that  her team’s submissions have been approved by the Ethics Committee and are now awaiting final approval by the Poisons and Pharmacies Board and the National Council of Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI). 

“If the two agencies of research mentioned in the Nation Newspaper have already obtained initial approvals, it would be important for our Government to tell Kenyans how they got the approvals,” the Kenyan Bishop stated and probed, “In the spirit of our Constitution, was there any public participation or approval by Parliament?”

Thirdly, the 63-year-old Prelate is concerned about the alleged plans because they undermine the dignity of Kenyans considering the possible side effects of the potential COVID-19 drugs and vaccine.

“Whereas the Covid-19 pandemic is a grave matter at hand, it should not in any way be used to compromise the rights and dignity of the citizens,” Bishop Wainaina cautioned, adding that because “vaccines or drugs may have side effects on the citizens, we must be convinced of the safety of the same and preservation of the citizens' dignity.”

He underscored, “Everything should be done with maximum openness, and testing should not be carried out on unsuspecting citizens.”

In addition, the Bishop regards the alleged plans as disrespectful to Kenyans and a possible indicator of opportunistic tendencies by foreign agencies that take advantage of the “poor” who are bribed into human subject research unethically.  

“The ‘Glory of Kenya’ that we sing about in our National Anthem implies that Kenyans deserve respect,” Bishop Wainaina observed and advised, “All of us must remain vigilant to the foreign insurgences including research agencies that plan to come and lure poor Kenyans with money, and instill fear of the disease in order get people to agree to undergo trials of such vaccines and drugs.”

He added, “Poverty, it must be said, or sickness does not remove the dignity of a person. The dignity of the poor must nevertheless be protected.”

As a way forward, the Kenyan Prelate who has been a Bishop since June 2009 urged relevant Kenyan “authorities to take the necessary steps, even to deny such agencies entry into our Country to carry out trials of vaccines and drugs until the safety of Kenyans and their dignity are guaranteed.”

He pleaded with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta “not to allow any medical practice, whether by local or foreign agencies, that would compromise the dignity of Kenyan citizens.”

President Kenyatta has previously dismissed reports claiming that UK-based scientists are considering testing a vaccine for COVID-19 in Kenya after Fergus Walsh, BBC’s Medical Correspondent had said during an interview that trails in Kenya were being considered, remarks that triggered outrage from Kenyans.

Referencing the team of scientists in Oxford behind the potential COVID-19 vaccine, Walsh told BBC in April, “If they don’t get early quick results from the UK, they are considering a trial in Kenya where the epidemic of the coronavirus will be on the rise.”

On April 24, Kenya’s Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) in the Ministry of Health, Rashid Aman denied any knowledge of plans to have vaccine trials in Kenya conducted.

In a televised address to the nation a day later, President Kenyatta said, “There are those saying that research is ongoing where Kenyans are being used as guinea pigs for vaccine tests; there is no truths to such allegations.”

The President further said, “Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and Primate Research Institute are involved in a global effort to try and find a vaccine and once we have found one and have reached an area where this vaccine can be tested on humans, we shall let you know;

“Nothing will be kept in the dark,” President Kenyatta assured April 25.

Magdalene Kahiu contributed to the writing of this news report


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]