The Ministry of Health has defended itself over reports that a top scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) was wrongly dismissed for failing to release COVID-19 test results in time.
Reports emerged on Sunday that Dr Joel Lutomiah had been demoted for not relaying the results in good time for Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe to update the public during the daily COVID-19 briefings.
Kagwe who was angered by the delays on Friday, April 17 directed Kemri Director-General Yeri Kombe to remove Dr Lutomiah from any leadership position at the institution immediately.
The developments elicited an angry reaction from members of the public who accused the CS of misuse of power.
But while addressing the nation on Sunday, Health Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) Dr Rashid Aman stated that whatever decisions that were made were in line with the ministry’s efforts to “streamline and improve the coordination of test results being received in good time”.
Without going into details, the CAS noted that other issues that led to the dismissal were “administrative” and were effected by the Kemri top management.
Dr 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.
He 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.
“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 disciplinary 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. They also decried lack of necessary gear to use when handling samples.
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.