Professor Newman Noel Wannang is the leader of Plateau State COVID-19 Research team. The professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Jos, speaks with ISAAC SHOBAYO on the efforts of his team to come up with anti-virus drugs for the treatment of COVID-19 and other related issues. Excerpt:
Your research team has been working on the possibility of having a potent drug for the treatment of COVID-19, what stage are you presently?
Let me first of all make a comment on the second wave of coronavirus. It is very unfortunate that we are experiencing the second wave of the virus; it is also unfortunate to know that the level of infection of the second wave is higher and more unpredictable than the first. The most worrisome part of it is that the people in Nigeria or probably Africa seems not to believe in this virus up till now. Let us forget all the social media conspiracy theory or those things that try to debunk the existence of COVID-19. It is real; it is damaging; it is devastating and killing people. I will advise to still maintain the usual social distancing, the usual hand sanitising and hand-washing and avoidance of crowd, including all those things that NCDC has been talking about. That is the major way through which we can curtail this virus in our society today. It is true that we have a drug that we have researched and discovered to be very effective in the treatment of coronavirus. We have three drugs which I have mentioned on several occasions. One is the tea formulation, like tea preparation for the prevention; however, the drugs are available. We have done a lot of study at the pre-clinical level, use various types of animals and we have exciting results that have proved that this extract could be effective in the treatment of the virus. We have done a pilot study in healthy individuals, people with coronavirus at the asymptomatic and mild stages and our pilot study is suggestive that it is an excellent development that is worth trying. We have applied to NAFDAC and done the necessary initiation of processes for authorization from NAFDAC. We are waiting for the process to be concluded. Unfortunately as of December, when we thought we were going to have inspection of our facilities and some other projects, I think the offices closed down for the year but we are expecting them to resume [this] January so that we can continue.
We have also done the potency PMC. I think the bottlenecks are really the bureaucracies stagnating or slowing us down. We are praying that such things will be over so that we can quickly go to the clinical stages because the virus is devastating a lot of people. I believe the interest should be on the locally-sourced materials that will boost our immunity in helping us curtail the spread of this devastating virus. People have talked about vaccine and so many alternatives, but I would have expected that Nigeria inasmuch as we believe that vaccine can work, we should be able to explore our scientists within the country so that we can benefit from the vast resources. We are only waiting for NAFDAC authorisation and regulatory bodies to give us the green light so that we can go into the clinical trial.
From all indications, there are local attempts to salvage this situation; why is the government not looking inward to encourage research groups in the country?
I am not into government policy, but as a researcher if you ask me about research boost in Nigeria, it is actually very poor and dismal and quite unfortunate. That is why day in and day out, I keep on saluting the initiative of the governor of Plateau State who put in place a research team on COVID-19 and a free opportunity to research into local herbs. Ordinarily, we should be delighted to create opportunity for our researchers. When you look at research all over the world, go to the USA, UK, you will see that the bulk of the people researching have laboratories and if you dig further, they are Nigerians probably. If that is true, that goes to show that we have intellectual stamina to handle issues like that in the country. I still expect that the government should look inward and encourage scientists within our shores and then we explore further. I am not in any way capable of discussing about the vaccine, but I know too that there are several diseases that if we want foreign countries to help us, it would have come in handy during the HIV pandemic. We have lost quite a number of children under the age of five to malaria; these are peculiar African diseases in which I expected us to invest so much research energy and financial muscle. But unfortunately those diseases have been left over and they are really killing and devastating Africa. Investing in COVID-19 is also not a bad idea, but my advice for government would have been to spread its tentacles into local researches. Be that as it may, even if the vaccines come, it is good for us to subject it to some trials within the country so that we can verify the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. However, I am not saying it is not good; it is reasonable for us to have it but the bottom-line is that we should have the template to encourage local scientists within Nigeria. I can assure you we have experts in this country begging for opportunities.
Don’t you think this posture could discourage researchers in the country?
The bulk of our researchers, really, are outside Nigeria. I was amazed one time ago when I found myself in the US. I met some young men, intelligent researchers discussing research with foreign accent. I later realised that one of them finished from a Nigerian university. I was really impressed at the level of his intelligence and contributions to the debate. A lot of our scientists outside this country left due to lack of encouragement. I expected us to begin to think of how to develop our capacities in this country. It will amaze you to know too that vaccine production is not alien in Nigeria. As early as 1925, research centres in Yaba and Oshodi in Lagos have been producing vaccines. As late as 1987, Nigeria was producing vaccine in Lagos. But whatever happened I don’t know. That vaccine production centre was closed down in 1991; they said they were going to upgrade. From that time till date, about 30 years later, we are still upgrading. When you look at the quantum of the money expended in foreign facilities, medical trips and neglect in almost research sectors in Nigeria, then you wonder whether we really have a platform to promote research, propagate research, encourage research or have developmental plan for the country. We should by now be a producer not a consumer. It is unfortunate that so many vaccines had been produced in the past in Vom here in Plateau State. There are facilities for vaccine production; in Oshodi, Lagos, when you see the facilities, you will marvel. These are places where we need government intervention if we really want to develop and grow. My prayer is that one day we will begin to do the right things and address all the wastages going on.
Do you think Nigeria has learned any lesson from covid-19 in term of infrastructural development, especially in the health sector?
I wish this question is posed to a government official or one of our policy makers. However, the virus could be a blessing in disguise because facilities ab initio were in horrible state, but because of COVID-19 some of the hospitals have been able to purchase ventilators but that is the smallest thing a hospital outside the country would have. Some facilities that were never thought of were eventually bought. But if you look at it on a percentage base, I don’t think we have moved: from maybe one per cent to three per cent. We are still far behind. My prayer is that this COVID-19 issue will be a lesson for all of us. When you see the number of educated persons, the number of researchers, medical personnel that have been consumed by this COVID-19, then you will know the level of damage this virus has caused this nation.
Are you not surprised that international conspiracy politics has crept into the fight against this pandemic in which some are saying there is nothing like COVID-19. What is your take on this?
I am telling you in absolute confidence that there is COVID-19; forget those things you are seeing on the social media. It shouldn’t bother us whether coronavirus is from animal or it is a laboratory accident. The truth is that there is a sudden emergency of a strange virus which kills and destroys the system. If it is so, our attention should be on preventive measures and how to avoid it. As scientists, our energy should be geared towards how to get the drug to solve or cure it. The society should help the government; advocacy shouldn’t be a one man thing. All strata of the society should be involved. All of us should be consciously aware that it is real, a killer. What we should consider now is enforcement, by the time it is enforced in one or two places, people will sit up.
What are the likely obstacles militating against your research?
For now, our major obstacle is to get that authorisation from the regulatory bodies. Once we get that, we will now go to the next stage which is the clinical trial. Some drugs can come into the country without undergoing local trial and then it is accepted. In our own case, we are subjected to so many rigours. If authorisation is given, we will continue our work. The safety part of the medication we can guarantee; there are publications about them especially on their efficacy. We subjugate them to anyone who wants to do a safety analysis. Once we begin the clinical trial, the next thing will be finance. To run a clinical trial is always financially cumbersome. I would expect that having passed through this stage, government should be able to invest in clinical trials because the four stages that are involved, will require huge amount of money. That is my appeal.
Is there any collaboration among similar research groups in the country?
Research is always richer when there are collaborations. The research group from here is a wide group with a lot of scientists from various fields and our hands are open. This stage of clinical trial cannot be done without collaboration. We are waiting for partners from WHO, Africa Union, European Union and from West Africa Union. We are begging and seeking for collaboration; the more we are, the better and the merrier it is.
What is your advice to government now that it is looking for vaccine for the country?
Government should improve on advocacy in view of the second wave of COVID-19. It should enforce the use face masks, hand sanitiser, washing of hands and social distancing. There should be sanction and enforcement of all the laid-down protocols. Government should invest in our local scientists. On the issue of importation of vaccine, it is a good thing to bring in vaccine because we are interested in solving problems of humanity but we should also take it as an important point to check the safety of those facilities. Getting it from outside the country is okay but we should not be an absolute consumer nation.
We should subject it to local trial in our system here. I could remember that some time past, a particular drug was imported during the outbreak of meningitis in Kano. As a result, a lot of persons died. I could remember the cases of a pain reliever tablet, paracetamol and teething powder for children in which people died. If there is a vaccine it is a welcome development. Be that as it may, we should not accept them hook line and sinker without some basic necessity of safety or safety template before we begin to use. My advice is that we can bring in whatever we want to bring in but we should subject them to trial. We have scientists that can help us in that area. We should also help our local scientists to develop indigenous plants within this country for the treatment and cure of Coronavirus.
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