BY PPU REPORTER
The President challenged local scientists to fast-track the development of the HIV/AIDS vaccine while officiating at the Joint Clinical Research Center’s (JCRC) 30th Anniversary celebrations held at the center’s headquarters in Lubowa, along Entebbe Road, Wakiso District He also commissioned the first-ever bone marrow transplant center at JCRC headquarters. He also laid the foundation stone and signed off on a master plan for the new proposed cell and gene therapy center.
“I congratulate JCRC for the bone marrow transplant center that you have just opened here. As Prof. Ibingira said, when it’s done here, it will be much cheaper than when you do it outside,” he stated.
President Museveni underscored the role of vaccines in solving problems such as epidemics.
“I’m surprised that you have taken so long to get a vaccine because during the AIDS Conference in Florence, Italy, I don’t remember which year it was, there was quite a bit of optimism that we would get the vaccine, even me, I was almost becoming like a molecular biologist; I was following very closely because at that time we were saying that the problem with this AIDS virus is that it mutates, though some were saying that although it mutates, some portions of it don’t change, and if we can capture those, then we could get a common denominator in the variants of the virus and recognize it.
Therefore, I challenge the scientists, especially our own scientists, to wake up and deal with these problems.”
On misgivings regarding gene therapy and biotechnology by some sections of society, the President said he is trying to persuade some religious people that it is not true that when you do biotechnology and gene therapy, you are interfering with the work of God.
“We have been doing it for a long time. I have been a genetic engineer for a long time because we, the cattle keepers, always select the good breeders that will produce more milk. There are some bulls that produce only females, and we, the cattle keepers, appreciate females more than anybody else. If your cows are producing mainly male bulls, then you are very unlucky because what do you do with the bulls? But if they are producing females, they are good because you have a bigger breeding population,” President Museveni stressed.
“So, I want to convince my religious people that we have been doing that because of the performance criteria of those bulls. We are doing engineering but using a slow way of aggregating these genes. Now, these scientists, because they have the whole chain of genes, can know which one is causing problems and deal with them, just like we are doing it in breeding. We can also do it using this laboratory-based method. It is not a new practice,” he added.
A bone marrow transplant is a procedure that infuses healthy blood-forming stem cells into your body to replace bone marrow that’s not producing enough healthy blood cells. A bone marrow transplant is also called a stem cell transplant, whereas gene therapy involves altering the genes inside one’s body’s cells in an effort to treat or stop disease.
The President also hailed the partners who have worked closely with JCRC in promoting research and clinical development over the years.
“I specifically want to thank Dr. Manfred Dietrich; we should recognize his contribution with a medal or something for his tremendous contribution towards this center. I also thank our other partners like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and all other groups. We thank them so much for their partnership; God will remember them and give them some place in heaven,” he said.
The President later awarded the former Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Amama Mbabazi, the former Deputy Chief Justice of Uganda, His Lordship Steven Kavuma, Dr. Crispus Kiyonga, Justice Epelu Opio, and Mr. Ben Luwum, among others, for their immense contribution towards JCRC
The Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng, thanked the President for spearheading the HIV/AIDS fight in Uganda and his commitment to end AIDS by 2030.
“We thank you for your continued support to the health sector and your vision to have a healthy and productive population that contributes to socio- economic growth and national development,” Dr. Aceng said.
“As we are all aware, the first case of HIV AIDS was identified in Uganda in 1982. Your Excellency, through your leadership, awareness and preventive messaging was conducted early as soon as the epidemic was identified and the Ministry of Health established its sentinel sites that were used to monitor the trend in the HIV/AIDS prevalence, which reached a peak of 30 percent in Kampala by 1992 but with no available treatment,” she said.
“Allow me to appreciate you, Your Excellency, as many others have said, for establishing this great institution, the Joint Clinical Research Centre, which you started in 1992 aimed at finding a scientific solution to HIV/AIDS which was a major health problem to the Ugandan population.”
The Minister also attributed the improvement in the HIV/AIDS statistics in Uganda to the use of a multi-sectoral approach in partnership with the country’s development partners.
“The Joint Clinical Research Centre has made significant contributions on each step of the journey that we have taken towards the end of HIV/AIDS as a public health threat, and we expect it to make a significant contribution in the last mile of this journey in ending AIDS by 2030,” Dr. Aceng noted.
“As we move to the last frontier in the cure of HIV, JCRC is again at the forefront of efforts to find an effective HIV vaccine and to ensure that Ugandan scientists actively contribute to the designing of research for the HIV/AIDS cure especially through the emerging cell and gene therapy technologies whose clinical trials have already started in the United States of America,” she added.
Prof. Charles Ibingira, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the JCRC, hailed the President for taking a bold decision to address the HIV challenge head-on at a time when his revolutionary leadership was most needed because the disease was new and many lives were lost at that time.
“People were dying; we had no hope, but because of your vision, the situation changed. Your great vision to start the JCRC to intervene and address the desperate situation that the Ugandans were in and the untold suffering with HIV/AIDS is a clear demonstration of your great leadership and care for Ugandans. We can never thank you enough for this,” he added.
The Executive Director of JCRC, Dr. Cissy Kityo, highlighted that the center has played a vital role in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the region by pioneering the use of HIV drugs in sub-Saharan Africa in 1992 and importing the first generic HIV drugs from India to bring down the costs, which subsequently became the case study for the architecture of the PEPFAR.
“Your Excellency, our researchers have worked and continue to work tirelessly to discover new insights, treatments, and solutions to some of the most challenging issues facing our nation and region. JCRC has been part of groundbreaking research that has contributed to global knowledge and informed change in policy and guidelines and the course of the medicines we are taking,” Dr. Kityo said.
She added that the center is now leading the first study in Africa with evaluating new HIV drugs which are given as injections every two months instead of taking pills every day.
“We will continue to push the boundaries, there is no limit of knowledge and strive for excellence in research. Our laboratory has pioneered many tests to monitor how HIV drugs are working including CD4 count, viral load and testing of children as early as 6 weeks, we used to test until at 8 months, now we can test them using molecular tests and determine if they should start treatment,” Dr. Kityo said.