Isn’t Nigeria’s current push, to facilitate local clinical trials, develop and produce COVID-19 vaccines, and other vaccines and remedies for deadly diseases, coming too little, too late? No, experts say, as the pandemic has the potential for the long haul.
Due to lack of standardized infrastructure, Nigeria didn’t join in the global clinical trials, development, production and distribution of the vaccines to combat the pathogen that’s recorded 157,640,052 infections, 3,286,534 deaths and 135,116,911 recovered worldwide, as at 13:31 (GMT/WAST) on Saturday, May 8, 2021.
But the zeal to achieving the capabilities is moving apace, as the government engages the private sector that experts say is crucial to leading the drive for remedies for COVID-19 and other diseases.
Accordingly, Senate President Ahmad Lawan and House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila have met with President Muhammadu Buhari, for discussion on part-funding for COVID-19 vaccination, with a Supplementary Budget being sent to the National Assembly.
The legislative leaders alluded to allocating resources for local production of remedies against the virus, to counter the narrative that Africa has “traditionally lagged in vaccine development and manufacturing,” and that “less than one per cent of all the vaccines used in Africa are sourced from within Africa.”
With the continent being shortchanged in the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines produced in America, Europe and Asia, the executive and legislative synergy for homegrown remedies is a bold statement on Nigeria’s seemingly comatose healthcare system.
Following the parley with President Buhari, Sen. Lawan says Nigeria should have “some resources for our scientists to collaborate with other scientists across the globe, to have our own vaccine,” as “we can’t rely on what other countries are doing.”
“The U.S. is not allowing (Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) vaccines to go out of U.S.; EU is not allowing AstraZeneca vaccine produced in the UK to be sent out of EU; and India is not allowing AstraZeneca vaccine it produced to be exported,” he said.
“We have to fall back on our capacities and abilities; we have great scientists in this country, and many Nigerians outside Nigeria are also helping in developing the vaccines in other countries.”
“So, why don’t you bring them home? Why don’t you put some resources so they will also produce ours locally here and take care of our population, and then later other African countries, especially our neighbours? So, we had a very good discussion and interaction with Mr. President along those lines,” he said.
Sen. Lawan reinforces his position at the presentation of a research work on ‘Legislative Efforts and Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic’ by the Young Parliamentarians Forum, in collaboration with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
For him, the project to develop a vaccine must deploy resources specifically to provide the needed environment for Nigerian scientists abroad to come up with a vaccine that would serve Nigeria’s population and that of other developing countries.
He says for Nigeria to provide “herd immunity” for its over 200 million population, the government must collaborate with international bodies to develop and produce vaccines locally.
“This means we have to provide resources for setting up the environment for our scientists to collaborate with international agencies, as well as citizens who are either holding dual citizenships in other countries or are simply our citizens who have gone to other countries… for us to have our own vaccines,” Sen. Lawan said.
“It is a must, it is a necessity, and it is inevitable. Otherwise, Nigeria may not achieve the herd immunity in the next four or five years with our 200 million population,” he added.
Sen. Lawan notes that with about four million (AstraZeneca) doses of vaccines for over 200 citizens, “I don’t know how we can get 70 per cent of our people vaccinated, and that will translate into about 150 million or more to vaccinate in the next two or three years.”
“So, we need to work hard, provide the legislative intervention in terms of resources and environment for our scientists to work,” he said, referencing an overseas-based Nigerian scientist.
“I listened to a Nigerian scientist, who is based in the U.S., and he said it’ll require only one year for a Nigerian project to get its own vaccine that is not supposed to be for Nigerians only,” Lawan said.
“And that is why we need international collaboration. It’ll be a vaccine that can be easily used by other countries, even though when we are able to achieve that, we also target our population first like other countries are doing,” he added.
Though Sen. Lawan didn’t identify the “expat” Nigerian scientist that he referenced, Dr Simon Agwale certainly fits the bill. A renowned virologist and vaccinologist, he’s chair of Africa COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative and Chief Executive Officer of Innovative Biotech USA and Nigeria.
With many years of experience “combining top-level scientific research with the operations of Biotech companies,” and involvement in academic research at institutions in Nigeria, Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America,” Dr Agwale says “producing a vaccine is no rocket science.”
But he notes it’s neither a trivial matter, especially in the absence of “the necessary infrastructure needed for the arduous standardized processes” he firmly declares “is lacking” in Nigeria.
Dr Agwale, as quoted in the media, holds that understanding the current vaccine landscape, tracking of other countries’ development and development of partnerships “is amongst the essential aspects for successful vaccine development and manufacture in Africa.”
Chiefly, he explains that “the development and/or manufacture of a COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria will create a strategic long-term benefit for the country to be pandemic ready,” offering his expertise and experience to making Nigeria a vaccine producer.
Thus, his outfit, Innovative Biotech Nigeria, is partnering with two United States companies, to develop and manufacture COVID-19 vaccines for clinical trials and use in Africa, “with a plan to set up a factory in Nigeria, to domesticate vaccine production.”
“We are planning to manufacture the initial doses here in the U.S. and then later transfer the entire technology to Nigeria, to enable us produce the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines that are important to our country and Africa,” Dr Agwale said.
That’s the way to go for Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, and greatly endowed with human resources, with many of them shaping the COVID-19 vaccines success story in other countries!
LAST LINE: Next on the serial: Nigeria’s efforts to revive the National Vaccine Production Laboratory (NVPL), and a teamwork of Herbal Remedies, chaired by the Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Ogunwusi, YEKEM International Ltd and the Afe Babalola University, to locally develop remedies for COVID-19 and other deadly diseases.
▪︎Mr Ehichioya Ezomon writes from Lagos. (08033078357)