Killing Nigeria’s COVID-19 vaccine

•How bureaucracy is stalling production of vaccine, drugs

SADE OGUNTOLA reports that experts in the country are divided over COVID-19 vaccines and drugs as some believe that government should encourage local researchers to produce them locally, just as some local production of vaccines would take years to happen during which many more Nigerians would have died.

The COVID-19 pandemic has surely ravaged the whole world raking up unexpected mortality figures. Surprisingly, Africa has been largely spared, taking into consideration the number of fatalities recorded on the entire continent which is far lower than the reported figures in some individual countries in Europe.

However, while the vaccine has become available in Europe and America since December 2020 and inoculation has started in earnest, Nigeria, like many African countries, is still waiting for its first consignment of vaccines slated for late January, even as the death toll surges.

While Nigeria, which has lost dozens of physicians to COVID-19 is waiting for just 100,000 doses for a population of close to 200 million people, South Africa is expecting 1.5 million vaccines for  a population that is just over a quarter of Nigeria’s.

Already, most African countries are accusing the richer countries of Europe and America of cornering most of the vaccine supplies, at the expense of poorer countries. The pandemic, however, has continued its onslaught globally with the World Health Organisation (Who)  head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, raising the alarm over the lopsidedness in the distribution of vaccine and describing it as a “catastrophic moral failure.”

In Nigeria, health officials and doctors are equally worried that the vaccines distribution structure may be skewed in favour of the rich and powerful citizens when the consignments  eventually arrive in the country.

Though the Nigerian government is hoping to vaccinate 40 per cent of its population by the end of 2021, the major headache, however, is the cost and storage of the vaccine which poses a major challenge, as the infrastructure for this is appear to be non-existent.

Ordinarily, given this scenario, the best option should be local production of the COVID-19 vaccines but that too, is a long shot as the country’s capacity to do so, according to experts, is very low.

Dr Bassey Okposen, Director, Disease Control and Immunisation, National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), while expatiating on local capacity said Nigeria currently has no facility for human vaccine production or testing.

He said though the NIPRD and Biotech, a pharmaceutical company, was already looking into the vaccine production, it will, however, take between five and 10 years to start producing vaccines locally in Nigeria.

“We cannot (continue to) wait. Until we start producing; people will be dying because the process of making vaccines takes a long time. Now, advanced countries that have the technology have come out with a vaccine after a year, we criticized it.

“Is it the one that will come from Nigeria that does not have a structure for testing and production that we (are going to) wait for? It will be too late for us a country,” he declared.

Though some progress is being made locally towards home-made solution to COVID-19 such as the one already done by the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) at Redeemer’s University, Ede, Osun State, Okposen, however, believes that the journey is still very far as there are about five stages to be passed before it could be approved for pre-qualification procedure by WHO, but none of the stages is yet to be passed.

“If it (the Ede vaccine) had passed through these processes and is successful, we would have heard about it; if you have not heard about it, it means that it has not passed through the process of vaccine production and certification for use.

“It is not because it is indigenous that you just get the vaccine and start giving it to people. It has to pass through the five stages of vaccine production. If it fails any stage, it cannot be certified for global use,” he said.

Despite all these, some Nigerian experts are not giving up on the hope of producing COVID-19 vaccines locally. A professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Jos and leader of Plateau State COVID-19 research team, Newman Noel Wannang, is one of those optimists. Though he believes that Nigeria is close to achieving a feat in home-grown COVID-19 drugs, bureaucracy and lack of encouragement on the part of government are major obstacles.

According to him, drugs that have been researched and discovered to be very effective by local researchers in the treatment of Coronavirus are already available but government has refused to encourage them. Speaking further, he said a lot of studies had been done at the pre-clinical level using various types of animals for experiments with exciting results that have proved that the drug could be effective in the treatment of the virus.

He also revealed that a pilot study had been carried out on healthy individuals with coronavirus at the asymptomatic and mild stages, adding that the results also proved that the research team is on the right path.

Wannang, while speaking on the progress made so far, said that his research team has applied to the National Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and done the necessary initiation of processes for authorisation but the process is yet to be concluded.

“Unfortunately as of December 2020 when we thought we were going to have an inspection of our facilities and some other projects, the offices closed down for the year. However, we are expecting them to resume this January so that we can continue from where we stopped.

“We have also done the potency test. I think the bottlenecks are really the bureaucracies slowing us down. We are praying that such things are overcome so that we can quickly go to the clinical stages because the virus is devastating the population. I believe the interest should be on the locally-sourced materials that will boost our immunity in helping us curtailing the spread of this devastating virus,” he said.

However, Professor Babatunde Salako, Director-General, Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Yaba, Lagos, is also of the opinion that locally made vaccines are possible in Nigeria as soon as possible, but it would only come with technology transfer.

According to him, through the Federal Government partnership with pharmaceutical company, May and Baker, local COVID-19 vaccine production could begin in earnest.

“We have been producing vaccine in Nigeria before now. Also at National Veterinary Research Institute in Vom, Jos, Nigeria is producing vaccines for animals. So, if we have appropriate technology transfer, we will produce the vaccine here,” he stated.

According to him, local production of COVID-19 vaccine will make it cheaper here and ensure that many more Nigerians would be vaccinated in record time than if the vaccines were imported. More so, the issue of cold chain and vaccine becoming deactivated will reduce.

The situation, he said should now spur Nigeria to put more efforts into developing its capacity for vaccines production in the nearest future.

Speaking on the progress made so far on locally-made COVID-19 vaccine, Professor Christian Happi, geneticist and Director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University, Osun State, the first lab in Africa to sequence the coronavirus genome, said that a cheap, 98 per cent efficacious COVID-19 vaccine in animals developed in September 2020 at Ede was a good step forward.

Happi, a professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics, said the DNA-based vaccine was developed using DIOSynVax technology and targets strains of the coronavirus circulating on the African continent. He added that for now, the remaining requirement is for it to undergo a human clinical trial to ascertain its efficacy and safety in humans.

“Our programme, when we developed it then as far back as September 2020, was that in about 12 months, we should have been able to have clinical trials in humans, but we are stuck because we do not have funding and resources,” he lamented, noting that the Africa-specific SARS-CoV-2 vaccine requires no refrigeration since it keeps at room temperature or could be given in the injection form.

Yet, there is still hope coming from abroad. Dr Simeon Agwale, Chair, Africa Covid-19 Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative, revealed recently that his group is working on its own COVID-19 vaccine in the US and hopes to carry out the clinical trials in Nigeria later in the year if the funding it so much desires comes its way.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the world and Nigeria expecting only a very small consignment of vaccines meant for a huge population, the fastest means of covering the whole nation would have been local production, but given the Nigerian factor, the answer to that is floating in the air.

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