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Debate rages on COVID-19 containment measures

By Chukwuma Muanya
16 December 2021   |   4:05 am
Medical experts are divided over the best containment measures as COVID-19 continues to mutate into deadlier variants. The debate was heightened after United Kingdom (UK), United States, Canada and others placed Nigeria and some other countries on red list and banned air travel from the latter.

A health worker prepares to administer the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine during the flag-off of COVID-19 Mass Vaccination by the Nigerian government in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 19, 2021. (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP)

Medical experts are divided over the best containment measures as COVID-19 continues to mutate into deadlier variants. The debate was heightened after United Kingdom (UK), United States, Canada and others placed Nigeria and some other countries on red list and banned air travel from the latter.

Also, concerns were raised as the inventor of AstraZeneca vaccine, Sarah Gilbert, on Monday, warned that the next pandemic could be more contagious and lethal, even as she urged health officials not to let down their guard on pandemic preparedness post-COVID-19.

Meanwhile, recent studies have shown that people may need to get vaccinated every six months to one year for many years to come and that the virus will continue to mutate into deadlier variants because of low vaccination coverage, especially in developing countries.

Former President, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Omede Idris, told The Guardian: “All these are unnecessary and uncalled for. Precautionary travel guidelines of test and vaccinations and non-pharmaceutical interventions are better alternatives.”

Chairman, Expert Review Committee on COVID-19 and foremost virologist, Prof. Oyewole Tomori, told The Guardian: “The situation was expected. It is another opportunity to examine the reasons for placing us on the red end of the RAG (Red Amber Green). Someone asked me if we already have the Omicron. I said let us wait for the arrival of outbound Nigerians at their destination. The destination countries will detect the Omicron we fail to detect and inform us. And that is exactly what happened.”

Tomori, who is also pioneer Vice Chancellor of Redeemer’s University and Chairman, Biovaccine Board, added: “From Canada to UK to Indonesia, Ghana, they are discovering Omicron among Nigerians arriving their countries. How come all these people left Nigeria with clean negative laboratory tests? We later discovered three Omicron cases, of which two are recent South African travellers. Could they have been members of Ramaphosa’s team? We are demonstrating that we are incapable of detecting the Omicron cases by ourselves. Therefore, to them, it is safer to travel-ban us. I do not blame them. We are only paying for our incompetence.”

A haematology oncologist at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and former Chairman, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) Lagos Chapter, Prof. Edamisan Temiye, told The Guardian: “My opinion is that the ban by the UK government is too hasty and is not based on the reality on ground. Mind you, it is now clear that this Omicron variant has been around for some time and it, indeed, did not originate from Africa. The only thing that happened was that South Africa was the first country to announce it. Also, there is no evidence that there is upsurge of COVID-19 infection in Nigeria.”

National Chairman, Clinical Pharmacists Association of Nigeria (CPAN), Dr. Joseph Madu, said banning flights is discriminatory and unscientific, especially against African countries . “It is unrealistic and shocking to everyone, especially if we consider the fact that discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa or Botswana has been allegedly traced to non-Africans who visited the countries,” he said.

Madu added: “Existence of the variant just got discovered in the African countries almost at the same time cases were confirmed in non-African countries such as the United States of America.

“Furthermore, a country like Nigeria has been commended for the exemplary strategy engaged by the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC), Nigerian Centre For Disease Control (NCDC) etc. in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. This was said to be instrumental in clinching of a higher job by the immediate past leader of NCDC, Dr. Chike Ihekweazu.”

He said if the British government and Canada, for instance, want to ban flights from countries where the virus has been confirmed, then the United States (U.S.) should have been included as well.

The pharmacist said they couldn’t ban flights from a country such as Nigeria with only about three confirmed cases, yet leave out a country such as the U.S. where the variant has been confirmed in 16 states.

“What is the percentage of three persons in a population of about 200 million Nigerians, if one may ask? It is therefore unscientific to ban flights from Nigeria and certain countries with very low cases,” he said.

He said the suddenness of the ban in relation to emergence of the variant, which is traceable to non-permanent residents or visitors to some of the countries, should be re-evaluated.

Madu urged the British and Canadian governments to rescind this decision. “Going by the effect of COVID-19 on Africans living in Africa, it can be deduced scientifically that the disease and the variant are unlikely to have emerged from any African country,” he said.

The pharmacist further explained: “At the beginning of the pandemic, it was estimated in some quarters that millions of Africans will die, but Western countries’ scientists were proven wrong, as they later confirmed that Africa has been spared by the virus for reasons which may not be unconnected to climate and other factors.

“So, if the virus hardly kills Africans, how could it have emerged from African countries, leading to ban of flights or placement on red list meant only for African countries?”

National Chairman, Association of Community Pharmacists of Nigeria (ACPN), Adewale Aderemi Oladigbolu, told The Guardian: “This is a call to action for the Nigeria government. COVID-19 vaccination coverage in Nigeria is abysmal and we need to demolish all policies of government that limit access to vaccines. We should realise the UK’s ban on flights is a protective measure for her citizens in view of high virulence and the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases in some countries of the world. Nigeria’s agencies and parastatals must love Nigerians well enough to take similar measures to protect her citizens.

“The funded research institutions in Nigeria must continue with active genomic surveillance and Nigerians must also take responsibilities for their health and that of others by observing COVID-19 protocols.

“Also, it is not too late to search for indigenous medicines for COVID-19. Well meaning Nigerians should fund research into herbal medicines through faculties of pharmacies and other research institutions in Nigeria. We can not leave the job for government alone.”

Meanwhile, one of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine inventors has warned that another pandemic will threaten human lives and could be “more contagious” and “more lethal.”

Prof. Dame Sarah Gilbert, delivering the 44th prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture, said scientific advances made in research against fighting deadly viruses “must not be lost”.

Gilbert said: “This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”

She added: “We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness. The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.”

Also, a study of almost 800,000 veterans found the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson dropped dramatically as the Delta variant swept the United States.

The study, published in the journal Science, says the three vaccines offered about the same protection against the virus in March, when the Delta variant was first detected in the U.S., but that changed six months later.

The Moderna two-dose vaccine went from being 89 per cent effective in March to 58 per cent effective in September, according to a story about the study in the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine went from being 87 per cent effective to 45 per cent effective over the same period.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine showed the biggest drop — from 86 per cent effectiveness to 13 per cent over those six months.

“In summary, although vaccination remains protective against SARS-CoV-2 infection, protection waned as the Delta variant emerged in the U.S., and this decline did not differ by age,” the study said.

The three vaccines also lost effectiveness in the ability to protect against death in veterans 65 and over after only three months, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The researchers said the study confirms the need for booster vaccines and protective measures such as vaccine passports, vaccine mandates, masking, hand-washing, and social distancing.