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The sports-loving scientist who takes on viruses

Dr Kariuki Njenga is a professor of infectious diseases at Washington State University
Dr Kariuki Njenga is a professor of infectious diseases at Washington State University, USA. PHOTO | COURTESY 

When news broke early this week that a Kenyan researcher was among scientists picked to establish 10 US-backed Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases (CREID) globally, the name Kariuki Njenga did not seem to ring a bell to many.

Debate on social media quickly shifted to the utilisation of the Sh1.8 billion grant by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to create the research units and a coordinating centre.

But to Dr Njenga, the grant to establish a Center for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases-East and Central Africa (CREID-ECA) was more than just money. It adds a feather to his cap as a distinguished international researcher.

With some 47 international research-related grants worth multi-million dollars to his name since 1986 when he began his Master of Science studies at the University of Nairobi, it is more of passion in breaking fresh ground in virology than self-aggrandisement for the gentle-spoken scientist.

“My desire to become a microbiologist and research scientist became obvious in my second year of Veterinary School, and since then I have stayed the course,” Dr Njenga says in a personal statement.

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“The pursuit of this path was inspired by two things — my early knowledge of the simplicity of a virus life cycle and its ability to harness the replication cycle of eukaryotic cells to propagate itself and cause disease, and a desire to do research, publish and be cited by others” he adds.

His efforts have borne fruit and he has seven awards to his belt, including the James Virgil Peavy Workforce Development Award of the US’ respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the McKnight Presidential Fellowship Award for The Most Promising Faculty of the University of Minnesota.

Dr Njenga was in 2019 also inducted into the world’s most elite science body — the 200-year-old National Academy of Sciences in the US — for his contribution to human medicine.

The professor of virology and global health at Washington State University and senior research officer at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) is the second Kenyan, after anthropologist Maeve Leakey, to be admitted to the academy some of whose members have won Nobel Prizes.

Through his research work, Dr Njenga has made breakthrough discoveries and secured four patents. For example, he holds a patent for a diagnosis tool for pneumovirus in avians.

His work in laboratory management, training, policy and systems design has been replicated by governments across the world with US disease agency using him as their linkman in Africa and Asia.

“Between August 2007 to August 2009, I joined the CDC-Atlanta Influenza branch to assist in the establishment of a National Influenza Center at the Uganda Virus Research Institute.

“In 2009, I was a member of the World Health Organisation team that developed guidelines for preparedness for pandemic influenza for National Influenza centres worldwide,” he adds.

And during the bird flu outbreak in 2009, he trained scientists from Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, Rwanda, and Ghana on the diagnosis of the bird flu virus.

Between 2011 and 2014, Dr Njenga served as head of the One Health Programme at CDC-Kenya and the Kemri, focusing on establishing a multi-sectoral that enhanced Kenya’s efforts in preventing and controlling zoonotic diseases.

One Health looks into creating local capacity among medical professionals in Kenya, Africa and around the world to promote good health for people, animals and our environment.

As part of the One Health research programme, he focused on conducting systematic burden of disease studies on priority episodic and endemic zoonotic diseases in the East Africa region, and studies at the animal-human-environment interface to elucidate the mechanisms of animal-to-human transmission.

Besides, he was instrumental in developing a linked human-animal population-based syndromic surveillance platform that investigated the nutritional, economic, and zoonotic interactions between rural sub-Saharan people and their livestock.

The NIAID said the research projects by the 10 new CREID will include surveillance studies to identify previously unknown causes of febrile illnesses in humans; find the animal sources of viral or other disease-causing pathogens, and determine what genetic or other changes make these pathogens capable of infecting humans.

Each centre will focus on one or more regions of the world. In East and Central Africa, for example, the centre will focus on pathogens including the Rift Valley fever virus and the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Away from research and academia, Dr Njenga who was born Kitale loves sporting and site-seeing.

“Apart from research, I love playing golf and lawn tennis, and travelling,” he says.

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