A top scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) was recently demoted following reports that he had failed to release test results of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) on time.
Reports by Daily Nation indicates that Dr Joel Lutomiah, who until his demotion served as the Centre for Virus Research director, had been charged with the role of setting up the necessary infrastructure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Lutomiah was also the chairman of the Kemri Rapid Response, which is in charge of laboratories.
The roles put the researcher at the centre of the fight against COVID-19 as he often appeared on the Ministry of Health committee to brief members on the position of the institution on the pandemic.
But that was shortlived as he received a disciplinary letter on April 17 from Kemri Director-General Yeri Kombe informing him that he had been dismissed for delaying the release of COVID-19 test results on that particular Friday.
The KEMRI boss had apparently received instructions from Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe who was angered by the delays on that Friday.
Reports indicate that Kagwe instructed Prof Kombe to remove Dr Lutomiah from any leadership position at Kemri immediately.
“This is further to our meeting with the Cabinet secretary this afternoon on the matter relating to your conduct. You, this morning, delayed the release of Covid-19 laboratory results of the previous evening contrary to an earlier agreement with the Ministry of Health that you release them before 8am. You, therefore, have failed in your duty to honour a matter that is of national importance,” the letter reads.
“I hereby relieve you of your duties as the Director, Centre for Virus with immediate effect. You will hand over to Dr Samson Konongoi, who will act until a substantive holder is appointed. Meanwhile, revert to your previous position as a research scientist.”
A source at the Ministry of Health told Nation that Dr Lutomiah was not dismissed but resigned “because of the sensitivity of the pandemic”.
“This was not a dismissal. The director-general was directed by the big man to remove him from that position … because of the problems we had with receiving results,” the official is quoted.
But researchers at Kemri now say that Dr Lutomia was dismissed for raising serious questions regarding the funding of the financially starved institution to carry out its mandate.
The researchers claim that they had only received gumboots from the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency as personal protective gear last month.
Dr Lutomia had apparently raised the issue with the ministry severally but received no satisfactory feedback. His colleagues say that he had even threatened to stop the tests citing frustrations by government.
“He demanded answers and even threatened to stop the tests if we were not given the protective equipment. This is why he has been removed from the position. He is firm, ” said one of the researchers, who insisted that his dismissal was irregular.
According to the researchers, the CS has no right or authority to effect such a dismissal.
As a matter of procedure, Dr Lutomiah used to collect the test results and submit the manual and automated ones to the minister to announce in the afternoon.
On that particular day, the researcher’s say, the minister had not communicated with Kemri over intention to announce the results in the morning.
“The results were not late. The Cabinet secretary went to the airport in the morning to receive some goodies,” the researcher added.
“He went off the script and announced the results instead, yet he was to do so at 3pm. It happened before Dr Lutomiah could submit the manual ones. The results he had were from the Cobas machines.”
The researchers also castigated Prof Kombe for failing to defend a colleague dismissed wrongly.
“We demand to be given reasons for the dismissal of our team leader who has worked with us all this time. The mistake, if there was any, was not his making. Why is the government interfering with the running of Kemri?” asked another researcher.
Kemri has tested more than 6,000 people since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country mid last month.
However, researchers at the institution continue to decry poor funding amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected over 300 people and killed 14 others in the country.
The individuals, who are now demanding more protective gear that is mandatory in the handling of samples, criticized CS Kagwe for dismissing Dr Lutomiah whose only intention was fighting for their rights.
A section of Kenyans online weighed in on the matter condemning the CS for demoting Dr Lutomiah. They further called on the government to fund the institution to better its services.
Here are some of the reactions online:
SAD to read in the Sunday Nation that Kenya’s premier medical research institute, KEMRI has only received gumboots, yes GUMBOOTS, from GoK & MoH, & of the Billions allocated to fight Wuhan Virus (COVID-19), ZERO Shillings allocation. Then its lead Director Joel Lutomiah is fired.
— Donald B Kipkorir (@DonaldBKipkorir) April 26, 2020
My concerns are with the researchers at @KEMRI_Kenya and other institutions. They have years of training, acquired specialised knowledge and skills which cannot be easily replaced. The @MOH_Kenya should be slow to anger and slow to judge. The CEO should protect his professionals. pic.twitter.com/7C3Dqo9pqa
— Prof. Davy K. Koech | PhD, DSc, MBS, OGW, SS (@DavyKoech) April 26, 2020
So CS Mutahi Kagwe has decided to sack Dr. Lutomya a Luhya claiming he delayed to release COVID-19 results for him to relay to the public! Really? Methinks it is the money coming into KEMRI that they now feel Mundu wa Nyumba should handle.
— KENNETH (@IkeOjuok) April 26, 2020
So Health CS Mutahi Kagwe decided to sack a top scientist at KEMRI because he delayed to release COVID-19 results. Really? In the midst of a global pandemic? Why do I feel that there's more to this cover-up story?
— Victor Mochere (@VictorMochere) April 26, 2020
— Consumers Federation of Kenya (COFEK) (@CofekRebranded) April 26, 2020
So CS Mutahi Kagwe has decided to sack Dr. Lutomya a KEMRI scientist claiming that he delayed to release COVID-19 results. Really? I think there is much we are not being told
— Maina Wilson (@Adyeewillie) April 26, 2020
KEMRI lead Director Joel Lutomiah wat not fired because of delayed Covid-19 tests. The gov't thinks that he leaked info that UK was making trials of Covid-19 vaccines in Kenya. It's the government eating its own children
— Francis Muli (@FmuliKE) April 26, 2020