Kenyan Leads Crucial Research in Top US University

  • Undated image of Washington State University
    Undated image of Washington State University
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  • A Kenyan Kariuki Njenga has landed a job at the prestigious Washington State University in the USA where he is a professor of infectious diseases.

    He studies emerging zoonotic diseases and helps Africa and the world stay ready to combat them while simultaneously working with PhD students at the University of Nairobi and Kemri.

    As a virologist with interest in Africa, Njenga divides his time between the UoN and WSU where he leads the research teams on diseases in Africa. He is also part of the team at KEMRI that addresses the most relevant public-health issues affecting the Kenyans.

    Virology Professor Kariuki Njenga from Washington State University in USA
    Virology Professor Kariuki Njenga from Washington State University in USA.
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    "My goal is to make WSU Global Health — Kenya, which represents the institution’s public-health mission in Kenya, the go-to place for cutting-edge research in emerging infectious diseases on the continent," the professor stated.

    "This will be achieved through training and mentorship so that long after this generation of researchers is gone, there will be others to take over. This is an especially important task here: East and Central Africa are where many of these infectious diseases originate."

    Before landing the job at WSU, Njenga was the lead Professor that recruited a team of scientists in East and Central Africa and applied to set up and run the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases (CREID) in Africa after a request came from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

    Under CREID Njenga stated that the network’s aim was to investigate how viruses and pathogens emerge from wildlife and spill over to humans, leading to diseases.

    From 2004 to 2014, he worked with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the head of labs, and in other roles touching on its One Health programme. In 2004, he came back to Kenya from the US where he had been from the 1990s, to study emerging zoonotic diseases — which include Rift Valley fever, swine flu and Ebola

    During an interview with Nature, Njenga explained that his most crucial role was asking the right research questions to prevent disease outbreaks in East and Central Africa, as he was carrying out field studies in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

    Professor Njenga told the publication he was leading research into emerging infectious diseases and he had ongoing research on the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus in northern Kenya. He noted that research was crucial in identifying new diseases and combating them to save the future of Africa.

    "Our plan is that when a new virus is detected and sequenced, this information will be provided to our partners and collaborating industries so that they can start developing therapeutics and vaccines," the professor stated.

    He holds a Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Science degrees from the University of Nairobi, and a PhD from the Pennsylvania State University.

    In 2020, Njenga was among 11 people who secured funding from the USA's National Institutes of Health (NIH) that were announced by American physician-scientist and immunologist serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to President Joe Biden, Anthony Fauci.

    A statement from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the institutes under NIH, gave the Virologist the money to set up a Center for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases - East and Central Africa (CREID-ECA).

    The centre was expected to carry out research on viruses including Covid-19, the Rift Valley Fever among many others. “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a potent reminder of the devastation that can be wrought when a new virus infects humans for the first time.

    "The CREID network will enable early warnings of emerging diseases wherever they occur, which will be critical to rapid responses. The knowledge gained through this research will increase our preparedness for future outbreaks," stated Fauci.

    Kariuki was among the pioneers who developed a system that reduced the prevalence of Rift Valley Fever.. In 2019, he was also inducted into the world's most elite science body, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

    Dr Njenga also served as Laboratory Director of the CDC in Kenya, first to establish and equip the laboratories and later to lead diagnostic testing for outbreaks in the horn of Africa and East Africa (Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda) for diseases such as Rift Valley fever, Avian influenza, Hepatitis E, Leptospirosis, and anthrax. 

    WSU professor of virology and global health Kariuki Njenga, working in his lab in Kenya, in 2017.
    WSU professor of virology and global health Kariuki Njenga, working in his lab in Kenya, in 2017.
    WSU Insider