COVID-19 Vaccine: How Soon Can Local Researchers Deliver Efficient Shots?

The Federal Government on Monday gave the sum of N10billion to support domestic vaccine production. Dr. Osagie Ehanire, Minister for Health disclosed that the government has considered the production of a local vaccine a worthy call. The local production, the minister explained, would not stop the procurement of vaccines from other countries.

 Dr. Ehanire stated last month that he was hoping to see the first shots arrive through the global COVAX scheme this January, although details on the precise timing have not been revealed.

Nigeria is also participating in the African Union initiative called ‘African Vaccine Availability Task Team’, and has indicated interest to secure 10 million doses of the vaccine. This second batch of vaccines, which does not require deep freezers, could be supplied from March 2021.

 The Health Minister had earlier announced in November 2020 that Nigeria intends to set up a vaccine production company to boost local COVID-19 vaccine output. This is a good move, however, it is coming at a time when the most urgent need is prompt vaccination. Developed countries with better research facilities had spent several months before current breakthroughs were recorded.

 The investment in the production of COVID 19 vaccines coming at this time, during the heat of the second wave, has elicited questions on the possibility of a quick breakthrough. Can Nigeria emerge with an efficient vaccine before the global market becomes saturated with products from America, Europe and Asia?

Nigerian researchers before the early stage of the second wave had revealed various levels of research work on developing a vaccine.

 Dr. Oladipo Kolawole, a specialist in Medical Virology, Immunology, and Bioinformatics at Adeleke University, Ede, in Osun State, revealed in June 2020 that his team had worked extensively on developing a vaccine for Africa.

 However, Dr. Kolawole stated that with adequate funding, it would take a minimum of 18 months. This is due to the large amounts of research, analysis and approvals required by medical authorities.

Read Also: COVID-19 Vaccine Success: Worries for Africa

Christian Happi, a Harvard-trained geneticist and director at Redeemer’s University, in Ede, disclosed that animal trials showed a high level of protection (90 percent) in the pre-clinical evaluation. This was done in the school lab, which is the first in Africa to sequence the coronavirus genome.

 Nevertheless, the research could not advance as funds being allocated for the vaccine research were grossly inadequate.

 Professor Sani Ibrahim, a biochemist and director of Research at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, stated that the most critical factor limiting vaccine research in Nigeria is infrastructure, especially facilities for human stages of clinical trials.

 The Nigeria Center for Disease Control on December 17, 2020, revealed total confirmed cases of 76,206 and 1,201 deaths.

On January 17, 2021, the number rose to 101,331 cases and 1,361 deaths. This shows a 30 percent increase in the number of infected persons and about a 12% rise in the death rate.

Clearly, this revealed that the second wave of the pandemic has hit the country and the urgent need now would be treatment and vaccination.

Focusing on production could cut off vital resources needed for therapeutics and vaccination, thus slowing down the process of a quick recovery from the pandemic.

 Several countries have left the pre-production stage and are now actively churning out vaccines for the international community.

Kenya has begun trials to evaluate the procured vaccines, joining several countries such as the South Africa, and Brazil. About 20,000 volunteers are taking part in the trials.

The University of Oxford website revealed that the trial in Kenya will initially involve 40 frontline workers in Kilifi county.  Upon confirmation of the vaccine safety, a further 360 volunteers will be recruited with possible expansion of the trial to Mombasa and other areas of the county.

 Even with the plans by Nigeria to procure vaccines, health experts have expressed doubts about the country’s readiness and capacity to handle COVID-19 storage, and conduct a nationwide vaccination campaign. Several factors such as poor storage facilities, unstable power supply, acute data supply, and shortage of manpower will contribute to these uncertainties.

 Health experts have also stressed the need for clinical trials in Nigeria to ensure efficiency before arrival. From all indications, the COVID-19 case in sub-Saharan Africa is peculiar.

Antibody tests must be done first to determine the level of natural immunity. Medical scientists in the country need to determine what will be efficient.

 Adequate preparations for procurement have not been made available. Many commentators feel that putting billions of Naira into production now can become a distraction from the urgent need of procuring vaccines and therapeutics, especially at a time when some citizens are already resorting to fake coronavirus vaccines. Nigeria’s health regulatory authorities are lamenting the rising rate of fake COVID-19 vaccines in the country. 

Similar incidents were recorded last April when black market coronavirus test kits were prevalent in Nigeria.

 Also, adequate preparations need to be made for the distribution process. Some doctors have expressed worry that when the vaccines arrive, they will go first to the rich and powerful. Dr. Ndaeyo Iwot, Secretary of Primary Health Care, in Abuja, however revealed that the government would track doses and clamp down on any form of corruption.

The nation cannot afford a second lockdown; hence the imposition of strict COVID-19 measures. The nation is yet to recover from the economic shock of the first lockdown. Procurement of effective vaccines and prompt distribution are the best options to the route of speedy recovery.

 To check the spike, the Kano State Government last Tuesday directed all civil servants in the state to stay at home pending further directive.

 Lagos State has recorded a spike in the number of affected persons as the state alone has 32,720 infected cases. There is the possibility of a lockdown if there is a continual rise in number.

The urgency of the situation cannot be downplayed as the number lives claimed just within the short period the second wave started are appalling.

 Obafemi Hamzat,  younger brother of the Lagos State Deputy Governor, Professor Duro Ajeyalemi, immediate past Registrar of Joint Universities Preliminary Examination Boards, Professor Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, are some of the prominent personalities lost to the second wave of COVID-19 virus.

 How many more lives would be lost to this dreaded pandemic? Local production of vaccines might be a good long-term idea; but for now, procurement is a necessity as the country needs to recover grounds lost to the pandemic since 2020.

-Peace Omenka

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