Celebrating the Army’s Lab Partnership with Kenya While Guaranteeing Its Future

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Between May 21 and 24, 2024, Kenyan president William Ruto will visit Atlanta and Washington, D.C., for a White House state visit, the first African head of state to be so highly honored since 2008. It is the occasion for Presidents Biden and Ruto to spotlight global health partnerships, burgeoning trade and investment, improved governance in the digital era, and deepening security cooperation, most notably the imminent deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers to restore order in Haiti, supported by the United States.

One vitally important dimension of the U.S.-Kenya relationship that deserves special honors is the 55 years of continuous health partnership between the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research-Africa (WRAIR-Africa) and Kenya. Originally paired with the Kenyan Ministry of Health, WRAIR-Africa has for decades also operated in close collaboration with the Kenya Defense Forces as well as civilian organizations, particularly the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). For over two decades WRAIR-Africa has partnered with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Kenya Defense Forces to strengthen controls over HIV/AIDS within the Kenyan military. 

This remarkable history tells a story of a U.S.-Kenya civilian and military health security partnership of unusual longevity and achievements. It is the story of building a highly skilled Kenyan biomedical research and surveillance workforce dedicated to global health security, one that now performs the lion’s share of the lab’s work. Since 2002, WRAIR-Africa has trained 15 Kenyan PhDs, 69 master’s students, and 8 post-docs. Both through on-the-job training at KEMRI’s WRAIR-supported basic and clinical research sites and through formal academic mentorship, WRAIR-Africa’s Kenyan scientists bolster Kenya’s capacity to protect its citizens.

It is a story of steadily generating new knowledge. WRAIR-Africa has published dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies by Kenyan and American researchers that advance understanding of malaria, HIV/AIDS, and other biothreats, all the while enhancing both the readiness of American servicemen and women and the health security of all Kenyans. The lab has conducted genomic sequencing of Covid samples during the pandemic, and continues to do so today, and it has detected—and continues to detect—antimicrobial resistance across the region.

The partnership is proof that consistent health engagement over more than five decades results in gains that protect multiple partner military forces operating in the region against endemic infectious diseases. That rests on WRAIR-Africa’s remarkable reach: in addition to its Kenyan partners, it actively collaborates with Uganda, Nigeria, and Tanzania, opening a broad window to assess infectious disease threats throughout central Africa.

Covid-19 revealed that improved data, innovative research and development on infectious diseases, and building human workforce capabilities in Africa are essential to health security. WRAIR-Africa contributes across all three of those fronts.

While celebrating these achievements, on the occasion of President Ruto’s state visit, it is important also to focus on fixing WRAIR-Africa’s vulnerabilities, and to urge the Biden administration and Congress to do more to secure the future of this partnership.

WRAIR-Africa is seeing its foundational funding weaken considerably. Investments in surveillance have declined and are at risk of further cuts. Disease-specific research investments in malaria and other infectious diseases have also declined. Investments in the U.S. military’s scientific workforce are in doubt. Assignments to WRAIR-Africa and the other U.S. military laboratories throughout the world are critical to the education and development of career military scientists whose work not only protects U.S. forces around the world, but has repeatedly proven foundational to breakthroughs in vaccine development, disease detection capabilities, and medical countermeasures of all types, often in partnership with civilian colleagues. 

High-level leaders at the White House, the Department of Defense, and Congress need to speak out, loudly and often, in support of guaranteeing WRAIR-Africa’s sustainability. The argument should begin from a single simple point: WRAIR-Africa is the story of successful, decades-long partnership with Kenya across scientific, public health, and security priorities. With sustained investment, it has improved the security of Americans and Kenyans alike. It is in the vital national interests of the United States, and the national interests of Kenya, to see that success endure.

Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Thomas R. Cullison is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS.

Thomas Cullison
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Global Health Policy Center