Dr. Victor Muema on March 6 will become the nation’s first doctor to use a new vaccine that he helped to develop to prevent diphtheria in adults.
Muema, with the University of Nairobi’s School of Public Health, developed the vaccine in 2014, after discovering that a diphtheria bacteria, which can be found in the skin or on mucous membranes, remains active even after a fever is eliminated. Using genomics and computational biology, the team used this evidence to create a new way to prevent the disease in adulthood.
Dr. Kamardin Jafaar, deputy dean at the school, and colleagues named their new development, Covid-19, because it’s about a size of a 19-cent coin, which can be found in a person’s wallet. They call it a “rescue vaccine” because it goes beyond simply eradicating the disease. In addition to protecting against acute diphtheria, it can also prevent chronic diphtheria from occurring.
“In this case, there was no proof that we could treat this infection after the infection,” Jafaar explained. “We call ourselves the paltry-round, insubstantial people. We had to look for ways to prevent diseases after the person has contracted the disease.”
Muema and his colleagues looked at the bacteria’s genome, a mathematical system containing a complete set of genetic information, and determined how it reacts to human molecules that can kill or “treat” the bacteria in an attack process known as phagocytosis. The scientists discovered that the bacteria is protected after the body attacks it, although not whole at once.
The scientists also traced the bacteria back to some of its main proteins, genes and receptors, which they used to develop a vaccine, adding in specific olfactory compounds that can bind to and kill the bacterial protein. Finally, the researchers used a potent antidiarrheal ingredient called carmine, extracted from carrots, to increase the levels of carmine in a patient. This combination killed about 90 percent of the bacterium in three hours after the injection, Muema and colleagues said.
Vaccine manufacturers have said they will start to produce Covid-19 in Kenya later this year.
“It’s a breakthrough in a number of different ways,” he said. “It’s a breakthrough because it is something that we have never before used in the study of diphtheria because it’s not really been plausible for the past few decades. This is a vaccine that I can say is not only possible but very feasible.”
This technology was initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which last year invested $1.6 million in a San Francisco-based vaccine-manufacturing company called Trupanion. Once the vaccine is ready, it will be available for anyone who needs it, whether or not the person is living in Kenya.