Echono canvasses established research culture as he delivers project in Sokoto
In continuation of its mandate to boost infrastructure and promote research in Nigeria’s higher education, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) has inaugurated the first indigenously developed COVID-19 research project at the Usman Danfodio University, Sokoto.
Speaking at the ceremony which held on Monday, the Executive Secretary, TETFund, Arc. Sonny Echono, noted that global economy actually depends on continuous technological improvement and innovation driven by a well-organized multi-disciplinary, vibrant research and development system, which integrates the research and training capacities of higher education with the needs of industry and the larger society.
Echono has often stated that research and development are major drivers of economic development and technological growth of nations. According to him, an established research and development culture will not only contribute to the development of a vibrant and productive academic system in the country, it will also stimulate scientific innovations that are useful to domestic industries.
He said: “I must therefore emphasize that tertiary institutions and research institutions all over the world are usually the key drivers of research and development activities. Hence, they are technological and economic growth catalysts.
“Indeed, it is through promotion of multi-disciplinary research of this nature that the academia can feed the industry which generates employment. As you are no doubt aware, the Fund has been making concerted efforts aimed at identifying more innovative ways of using government and donor funding in research programmes and projects for maximum development impact.”
Adding: “This is the basis of the institution of Mega Research intervention by the Fund.”
The ES explained that the Mega Research Grant Intervention aims at strengthening collaborative research by promoting decentralized cooperation involving clusters of researchers from different institutions to consolidate problem solving research as well as promote innovations in the country.
He noted that the project was one of the four projects supported by the Fund with the total sum of N1,250,000,000.00.
The ES said: “The project has shown that collaborations among stakeholders, each adding value from their areas of specialization to address issues of national priority will achieve the desired goals towards national development as they help to tackle developmental challenges.
“It also indicates to us that we are moving in the right direction since one of the mandates of research and development is to promote multi-disciplinary research that will increase stakeholders’ participation in the development matters.”
Echono therefore congratulated the group on its achievement and encouraged it not to relent in the efforts towards achieving the overarching goal of delivering a homemade COVID-19 vaccine.
Explaining how the project came about, the ES said: “Few months ago, President Muhammad Buhari welcomed the CEO of BioNtech, the patent holder for mRNA COVID-19 vaccine who had come to interact with Nigerian biomedical scientists and officials of the Federal Ministry of Health on the possibility of supporting mRNA vaccine production in the country.
“It gladdened my heart to be informed that the Vaccine development consortium sponsored by TETFund, under the Mega research project intervention was selected by the Honorable Minister of Health to interact with the BioNtech officials where they showcased their on-going vaccine development projects at the State House.
“As a result of their fruitful engagements, BioNtech expressed its immediate readiness to establish research partnership with Nigeria, in the area of strengthening local vaccine manufacturing in the country and the entire continent.
“Thus, the country leveraged on the existing Mega Research funded vaccine development consortium to gain the confidence of BioNtech in establishing a hub for mRNA vaccine manufacture in Nigeria.
“l was informed that part of today’s activities is a visit to the TETFund Centre of Excellence on Urology and Nephrology here in Sokoto. The development objective of TETFud’s Centres of Excellence is to support host institutions in promoting specialization among participating Tertiary Education Institutions (TEls) in areas that address priority national challenges and strengthen the capacities of these TEls to deliver quality training and applied research.
“It is heart-warming to note that the UDUS Centre of Excellence is so far, one of the best performing centres in delivery of key strategic objectives.”
“I will like to seize this opportunity to acknowledge the commendable efforts and output by Usman Danfodio University in terms of research and Development. The university has succeeded in accessing over 35 NRF grants over the years, placing it among the best performing institutions in accessing the NRF.
“That is not altogether surprising when we recall that the Vice Chancellor, Professor L.S Bilbis was among the first to win the NRF Grant in 2012 at inception with a patent granted by Mr. President in 2018.
“He is an example of the success of this intervention. The university is steadily growing in strength in terms of problem solving research to the extent that we at TETFund regard it as a Research and Development University.”
The ES concluded by noting that the project has shown that research institutes and academia can work together to transform the nation’s economy.
“I will like to use this opportunity to assure every stakeholder that TETFund is committed to supporting tertiary institutions to deliver on their mandate of providing quality teaching, impactful research and the much needed community service and development.
Presenting a candidate’s DNA-based vaccine for preclinical trials to TETFund boss, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Professor Lawal Suleman Bilbis, on behalf of the Vaccine Development Consortium in Nigeria, welcomed Echono, his directors and visiting head of institutions present at the occasion.
The V.C stated that the university has always been in the forefront of the fight against deadly infectious diseases in the country.
“The university was among the first few institutions that alerted the nation on the looming devastating consequences of COVID-19, following its emergence in China even before it reached Nigeria.
“On February 27, 2020, the university organized a one day national symposium with the theme: ‘Emerging and re-emerging viral diseases; the story of Lassa and Corona viruses. The well-attended event brought together many eminent scientists in the country. The outcome of the symposium warned the nation on the need to strengthen our public health infrastructures through strengthening local research and development.
“The symposium also lamented on how many African countries largely depend on foreign countries for survival, even on such health issues like diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
“The Executive Secretary may wish to recall that in the past, Nigeria was well known as producer of human and animal vaccines in the entire West African region. For example, the National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI), was recognized as a vaccine-producing hub for most of the zoonotic and economically important animal diseases in the country. The Nigeria Medical Research Institute (NIMR), Yaba, Lagos State, was also popular in the production of yellow fever vaccine for the entire Sub-Region.”
The VC decried that currently, the country’s vaccine production capacity is in a terrible and unacceptable state, stressing that more than 90 per cent of the vaccines used in Nigeria are imported through foreign donors.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made us realized and understands that all multilateral agreements between Africa and other nations of the world can easily be disrupted in the event of global health crisis. For instance, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines did not prioritize Africa, leaving the continent at the mercy of the disease, which continues to spread within the entire sub-regions, further aggravating the already existing socioeconomic challenges of the continent.
“This therefore left us with no option but to promote self-sufficiency through local vaccine research and development projects.The VC announced that the Consortium was graciously awarded the grant in the sum of N450 million to undertake the project under the TETFUND MEGA Research Intervention scheme, which was introduced to immediately address identified issues of national priority.
He added that despite the numerous challenges faced during the procurement of some of the consumables, equipment and reagents from abroad, it was pleasing to inform that within 11 months of the receipt of the first tranche of the grant, the school was ready to present the COVID-19 DNA vaccine candidate for preclinical trials in Nigeria.
“Let me at this juncture inform the Executive Secretary that through the support of TETFund, researchers in this University have been able to work on many other high impact projects that are already yielding promising results”, the VC said.