A great deal has been written about the Russian and British COVID-19 vaccines, but, in a sense, absolutely nothing—nada, zilch and zero—about the Zambian scientist.
In the global ongoing struggle for the most efficacious COVID-19 vaccine, which is a nuclear arms race in its own right, one has read or heard about the controversial Sputnik V of Russia or the UK-made AstraZeneca, but not a related thing about Zambia.
And, one may ask, does it really matter?
Well, it does because in a truly global effort and at such a decisive moment in human history, every nation under the sun must be accountable for its existence, not just by adhering to health guidelines, but by contributing its resources or talents towards realising the common good and helping save man from apocalyptic disaster.
That ought to be the source of real national pride. To fall short of that expectation, it can be argued, is to be selfish or irresponsible!The media blunder, in which only Russia and the UK seem to enjoy the lion’s share of media publicity on COVID-19 science is just that, a blunder, because Zambia has also put its best foot forward through its genius, Dr Joseph Nkolola, who is a senior scientist at the Harvard Medical School and plays an instrumental role in developing a COVID-19 vaccine which uses adenovirus serotype 26 (Ad26).
Dr Nkolola puts his scientific skills at the service of one of the world’s most respected and prestigious laboratories at the Centre for Virology and Vaccine Research, the Barouch Laboratory, named for its renowned leader, Prof Dan Barouch, in Boston, United States of America.
Affiliated to Harvard University and now in collaboration with pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, this laboratory hosts Dr Nkolola as he is involved in the intensive and yet controversial scientific effort to find the most useful vaccine to counter the virus that has brought public life to its knees.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, and with great urgency, the Zambian scientist has together with his highly skilled and educated multi-racial team worked tirelessly to improve the efficacy of the Ad26-based vaccine.
“Ad26 is a modified virus which carries a protein found on the surface of the coronavirus. It’s called the spike protein. When it’s detected in the body, the immune system produces antibodies which bind to spike proteins and blocks the virus’ ability to infect new cells in the body. That’s how the vaccine works,” states Dr Nkolola, whose scientific career, in a very real sense, began at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH).
When jabbed into the body, therefore, this particular vaccine is meant to train the body, as it were, to overcome a COVID-19 invasion, which, for almost everyone in the world, is now no longer a matter of if, but when it happens.
Having been subjected to clinical trials in different parts of the world, Johnson & Johnson recently reported on the effectiveness of this vaccine:
“Among all participants from different geographies and including those infected with an emerging viral variant, Janssen’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate was 66% effective overall in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19, 28 days after vaccination. The onset of protection was observed as early as day 14. The level of protection against moderate to severe COVID-19 infection was 72% in the United States, 66% in Latin America and 57% in South Africa, 28 days post-vaccination.”
With such a promising performance, Dr Nkolola believes that “vaccines are safe modality and they’ll play an important role in ending COVID. The more vaccines we’ve, the faster it’ll be to solve this problem and to bring the pandemic under control.”
Given the need for emergency use around the world to cut down swelling infection rates and death, it did not have to take ten years to develop the vaccine and warrant its safety for human beings.
“Multi-testing is used and the vaccines are developed in labs, then tested in animals; then small-scale human testing known as Phase I; then Phase II of testing in humans to broaden the number of individuals involved; then it goes into Phase III, which is final stage of testing where the vaccine is tested in thousands of people. It is this stage where efficacy is tested. These stages take a decade but in the current situation, while adhering to the protocols, the ten-year tenure has been reduced to a year. This is remarkable and it might result in rapid vaccine development in other fields,” Dr Nkolola explains.
With his name appearing on 41 research publications, the Zambian scientist engages in vaccine development while drawing upon his rich academic background and also vast experience as the sectional leader in the Barouch Laboratory co-ordinating and overseeing the group’s efforts in developing and testing HIV Envelope subunit protein vaccines that may confer protection against the virus by eliciting a protective antibody response.
He was born in 1969 as Joseph Patrick Nkolola, the first of what would be five children to a teacher couple, and he first went to Lusaka’s Woodlands Nursery School for a short-lived academic experience because soon the Nkololas became a family on the move internationally.
It all started in 1974 when the young Nkolola’s father, his namesake Joseph, was appointed as an education attaché in the Zambian embassy in UK.
From that first appointment up to 1982, when his father was recalled back to Zambia, Nkolola attended different schools from UK through Tanzania to Sweden. Back in Zambia he completed grades 8 and 9 at St Edmunds in Mazabuka, and later went to a Catholic school in Zimbabwe, where his father, still a relatively well-to-do civil servant, took up another government appointment until 1986.
Well-travelled but level-headed and not in the slightest cocky, it was a perfect choice for Nkolola to choose the University of Zambia (UNZA) as his alma mater, where his passion for biology stood him in good stead to pursue a double major in biology and chemistry after failing to make enough points for medical school.
Taught by Prof Luke Mumba, Zambia’s first specialist in molecular genetics and biotechnology, who now serves as UNZA’s vice-chancellor and remembers his former student as “very brilliant,” it was at UNZA that Nkolola considered a career in the field of molecular biology, which would become possible when he graduated with a merit from the university.
“From UNZA, very altruistic and wanting to carve out a niche in the world, with that being said I started looking for employment opportunities. I got a job at UTH where I worked in the chemistry laboratory. Prof Nkandu Luo was head of the microbiology department at UTH . . . . It was a real professional job though at the time there were few opportunities to further the techniques I was learning,” recounts the father of two.
His growing desire to specialise and further his studies was piqued further by the desolation he witnessed caused by HIV/AIDS during his time at UTH in the 1990s.
“I wanted to be part of the overall effort to find a solution to HIV. I was called back as an SDF (Staff Development Fellow) at UNZA after work at the hospital. For career progression, this offered the opportunity I wanted to get a scholarship opportunity with the help of UNZA,” the scientist says.
At this point every brick of destiny started falling into place, starting with the Free University of Brussels in 1996, where Dr Nkolola obtained his education in molecular biology at master’s level, and later Oxford University, where finally his PhD studies focused on HIV vaccine development and testing in Kenya until graduation in 2004.
It is because of such a grand rise in academia that his wife Maria, who also graduated from UNZA, says of him:
“Joseph is very hard working and dedicated to his craft. This specifically makes him well suited to be where he is and to make the contributions that he does. Looking back to our humble beginnings and the Zambian institutions where all this started, I’m very proud of him and very grateful for the opportunities that were afforded to him.”
Ultimately ending up at Harvard University as a scientist, Dr Nkolola was, at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, heavily involved in the relentless, elusive and massively controversial scientific search for an HIV vaccine, and also that of the Zika virus.
His own daughter, Chipego, 15, finds his father as “such an important role model to look up to, [someone who plays] a major role in current events.”
It is with the benefit of hindsight, therefore, that Dr Nkolola daily invests his vast scientific knowledge and skill to help develop his laboratory’s Ad26-based COVID vaccine, which, once reviews are done this year, will be sent out to inoculate the human population.
It is Dr Nkolola’s belief himself that no one vaccine will be a one-size-fits-all, but that as part of a global effort, Ad26, Sputnik V, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and all other vaccines will be needed to subdue the COVID-19 pandemic.
With such a science genius, therefore, Zambia is leaving its signature on the global race for a global COVID vaccine, and now that the story is fully told, this was once Zambia’s untold role in this scientific enterprise. This article was first published in Zambia Daily Mail on 10th February, 2021 and shared by Swithin Haangala today.
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