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Leading HIV vaccine research scientists short dead

Written by Arthur Okwemba
A 27 years plus illustrious career of one of the country’s leading professors was cruelly brought to an end on Monday evening by trigger-happy thugs.He was killed by the very people who his work –AIDS vaccine research- was probably going to benefit either directly or indirectly. 

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His wife and an American friend who were driving in the same car with him at the time of the shooting are in critical condition fighting for their lives at the Nairobi Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit after sustaining serious bullet wounds. The Australian friend who was also in the car, is said to be out of danger.

Professor Job Bwayo, one of the key researchers in the ongoing Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) research trials at the University of Nairobi, lost his life when the society needed him most.

A promising HIV vaccine research where he is one of the principal investigators was going to enter crucial stages in the next few months, at time when his services were going to be critical.

The vaccine is expected to protect people from HIV infection and replication of the virus among those infected, if proven safe and effective.

The Director of Kenya Medical Research Institute, Dr Davy Koech, described Prof Job Bwayo as “one of Africa’s most distinguished and accomplished career scientist of his time.”

“The Kemri family learnt with great sorrow and disbelief of the untimely demise of Prof Bwayo, an eminent scientist and scholar whose vision and wisdom has contributed immensely through the KAVI,” said KEMRI in its tribute to Prof Bwayo.

Described by his colleagues as a friendly man, his death has also left several, undergraduate, masters and doctorate degree students who were under his supervision in confusion.

He is one of the celebrated lecturers in the immunology department, who is said to have worked tirelessly in uplifting standards of research in the country.

Kenyans who were eagerly looking up at the ongoing HIV vaccine trials to produce a vaccine that would protect them from the disease, have lost as well.

Likewise, the media have lost a scientist who knew when information around his research work was to remain a guarded secret, and when it was prudent to release it for the public consumption.

When we visited his former Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative Department, his colleagues were both confused and scared to narrate what happened.

They could be seen discussing in small groups, having lost somebody they looked upon not only as a fellow scientist, but as father as well. His family was distraught to talk to the press, saying they were still coming to terms with what happened.

Doctors from other departments at the University who had interacted with him in one way or another were too mourning a fallen colleague.

“We have lost a scientist who the country will take many years to replace. I think the thugs should be inquiring about your station in life before they shoot you,” one of the doctors commented.

Prof Bwayo will be remembered as one of the scientists who were at the forefront of testing the first HIV vaccine in Africa, known as the DNA HIV vaccine, in collaboration with Oxford University.

As the chairman of Medical Microbiology department, he guided the delicate discussions around how the vaccine was to be conducted in Kenya. This initiative saw the first ever state of the art HIV vaccine laboratory in East and Central Africa build at Kenyatta National Hospital.

It also resulted in the formulation of a Memorandum of Understanding that is used as model to guide other research collaborations across African countries.

Again in the past two years, Bwayo played a critical role in convincing the American vaccine gurus that Kenya was capable of conducting another AIDS vaccine trial.

This ended-up in the collaboration between the National Institute of Health of America, and University of Nairobi on a vaccine that is currently under trial.

Prof Bwayo’s career as a researcher spans over two and half decades, concentrating on research around HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections. Much of his work and fellow researchers has been around commercial sex workers in Majengo slums.

This has seen him publish widely on these diseases, with the findings benefiting the government in the formulation of policies and pharmaceatical companies in research and development of drugs.

Such contribution prompted the University of Nairobi to award him with professorship in recognition of his work in the scholarly world.

Fellow doctors say he has given major guidance and contribution in the study of sexually transmitted infections, particularly when he was the Chairman of Microbiology Department.

They said the country has lost a hard worker who believed in people beating the deadline to help ease the pain of mankind.

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