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Greed, incompetence, Disdain for excellence killed Yaba Vaccine Plant

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Professor Oyewale Tomori, President Nigeria Academy of Science

Prof. Oyewale Tomori is a virologist and former President of the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS) and Vice Chancellor Redeemers University. In this interview with Chukwuma Muanya, he explains the challenges and way forward.

Why are we not producing vaccine locally?
The same reason electricity is epileptic, why we do not have pipe-borne water in homes and everyone digs a well or borehole to supply water, and our nation has remained underdeveloped, and permanently at the periphery of progress, but never really making any progress. We are a nation “blessed with leaders committed to self and family.”

Nigeria is a nation of people with loud in words, but impotent in positive action. We are a nation of people that care little about its health and wellbeing. We are a nation that has abandoned merit for mediocrity, a nation that celebrates the third rate, and lacks courage to strive for the best and the excellence. But we were not like this before. When we were a positively different nation, we produced vaccines not only for human use, but also for protecting our animals from diseases.

At the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory in Yaba, up until 1986 or a little later, we produced yellow fever vaccine, small pox vaccine and rabies vaccines for human use. In Vom, we produced vaccines to protect our animals against poultry, sheep and cattle diseases. We produced viral vaccines, as well as bacterial vaccines.

While Vom is still producing animal vaccines, Yaba died a long time ago and attempts to resuscitate it have met with woeful failure because of greed, incompetence and disdain for excellence. For those in charge, importing vaccines is one of the numerous conduit pipes for looting our natural resources and money laundering.

Did you know that between 1979 and 1983, there was a battle between Ministry officials and the “honourable” parliamentarians on who should import vaccines for the country? When the parliamentarians insisted it was their birth right to import vaccines through their proxies, the ministry officials declared that Nigeria had eradicated yellow fever and, therefore, there was no need for vaccine importation, nor was there a need to continue to support local production of yellow fever vaccine.

So, we zeroed the budget line for vaccine production in Yaba and stopped importation of YF vaccine. Oh, how we paid dearly for this war between competing vaccine importers! What happened to us? For seven years (1986 to 1992) yellow fever disease ravaged our country and only stopped, when it burnt itself out, with a reported number of 20,000 cases and more than 5000 deaths. Today, Nigeria holds the unenviable record of being the country with the longest duration of unceasing and uncontrolled YF epidemic and the largest number of cases ever reported to the WHO since 1948.

In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region, Nigeria remains the only country that has not completed the preventive YF mass campaign. It is estimated that over 100 million Nigerians remain unprotected against YF.

But why are research systems in our tertiary institution not stepping in to make local vaccine available?
Potent and efficacious vaccines exist for many diseases that currently devastate our country – measles, YF, meningitis etc. Therefore, there is no need to re-invent the wheel by conducting research on vaccine production in our tertiary institutions. Our tertiary institutions are not in any position to carry out meaningful and relevant research on vaccine production, because they are not in want of our national talent for incompetence, the disdain for excellence and the celebration of mediocrity.

Indeed, you will find in our tertiary institutions – the centres of excellence – that cutting edge research in incompetence and mediocrity is flourishing. Nowadays, we read of Vice Chancellors being caught in the nets of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), reserved for politicians and their type.

What will it take for us to start producing vaccines?
This is a question that is not easy to answer, because according to WHO, “the costs of producing a vaccine can vary enormously. For instance, a polio vaccine that is developed from a relatively simple technology, which has a high global demand, and is produced by multiple suppliers will have a much lower unit price per dose than a multivalent conjugate vaccine, like pneumococcal, that requires a complex manufacturing technology, and is produced globally in smaller quantities. However, it is worth noting that over time, costs generally drop as efficiencies are found in production, and as manufacturing plants increasingly operate at full capacity.”

So, it really depends on the type of vaccine, the volume of production, and cost of personnel, material, equipment, and other parametres of doing business. So, costs can vary from US$10 to US$50m. In our country, multiply that figure five to 10 times, as we will import virtually everything, and the manufacturing company has to build in its own electricity production and other inputs for a successful venture.

What happens, when we don’t produce our own vaccines?
You spend scarce resources to purchase vaccines from foreign producers, thereby contributing to the growth of their national economy. We allow the raw diseases to fester in our country and then require more vaccines from the foreign suppliers. According to the Federal Ministry of Health, Nigeria spends N6b on vaccine importation.


In this article:
Oyewale Tomori

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