Science Under Threat: UVRI Boss Speaks Out Against Political Interference

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science is increasingly coming under the threat of politicization and abuse by actors during pandemics and epidemics says Dr. Tom Lutalo, the Deputy Director Uganda Virus Research Institute.
14 Sep 2021 16:48
Dr Tom Lutalo, The Deputy Director at Uganda Virus Research Institute . He also chairs the ethics committee at the Institute

Audio 4

Research, particularly during epidemics is under threat from political directives that may lead to an increase in non-scientifically reviewed decisions. The decisions according to Dr Tom Lutalo, the Deputy Director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute, is sometimes driven by individualism. 

Uganda Virus Research Institute is a government research institute with a mandate to engage in health research pertaining to human infections and disease processes associated with or linked to viruses. It provides expert advice and has several national and international references and specialized laboratories. The institute is expected to be a world centre for health research.

Dr Lutalo, who is also the Chair of The science and Ethics Committee at the institute, says political pressure is normally felt during the pandemic.

“Whenever there are pandemics, we realize that researchers are propelled to begin the search for diagnostic tests, for treatment and vaccines in earnest. I have received calls as a chairperson about what they intend to do instead of submitting protocols," he added

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Lutalo, also a Senior Investigator with the Rakai Health Sciences Program was delivering a paper on the Integrity during pandemics/ public Health emergencies reflections on COVID-19 research. He reveals that with the outbreak of COVID-19, UVRI has evaluated fifty diagnostic kits brought by individuals of manufacturers claiming to be of standard but only two were recommended to the Ministry of health.

“All these kits have been inserted. And those inserts read that particular kit was evaluated in the lab, evaluated by a manufacturer and sensitivity and specificity is 100 per cent. Remember that at the institute, we have to evaluate them as per the protocol which was approved by Uganda Council for Science and Technology.” 

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“This will definitely have implications for patients, clinicians and potentially the government policy” warned Lutalo

According to Lutalo, there is a lot of substandard research amid the rush to publish. His revelation comes just weeks after the market was flooded with kits for rapid diagnostic of COVID-19. A number of individuals seeking to travel abroad have been prevented from travel because of what appeared like inaccurate or falsified tests. Some have been tested for and found to be COVID-19 positive.

It appears like Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) like other International research bodies have not been spared of the pressure emerging from the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Studies have found that beyond its social and economic impacts, the COVID pandemic is redefining the relationships between science, public policy, and society. Some of the political leaders under pressure have not followed the scientists’ advice on major decisions like which drugs, and what procedure should be followed to allows treatment.

In Uganda some of the treatments like CoVIDEX and Covilyce produced from Mbarara University of Science and Technology and Gulu University were allowed for use before clinical trials.  National Drug Authority Initially banned COVIDEX from drugs shops. But later allowed it following the high-level political intervention.

According to Lutalo, COVID-19 has had one of the largest numbers of clinical studies with over six thousand four hundred registered.

“Other pandemics and epidemics when I checked, we did not have that high a number of registered studies when I checked” he said He revealed that Uganda Virus Research Institute has received over fifty protocols from the research ethical committee secretariat.  “But they have to undergo checks and I have to tell you that many have failed the checks”

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Ideally, the government relies on scientific analysis and research in order to create sound public policy. Renown researchers like Professor Emeritus, Nelson Sewankambo agree that unbiased research not only pushes the government to make decisions that are guided by facts — it also increases public trust in the policy-making process.

According to Professor Sewankambo, the government, research bodies and individuals involved in research must ensure the integrity of research at all times.  

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He says all those involved in scientific research should do whatever is need to preserve public confidence in the research conducted by Ugandans and institutions like Universities.