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Nigerian doctor in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine trial speaks

By Marcel Mbamalu and Chukwuma Muanya
25 November 2020   |   4:25 am
From local health experts and professional bodies yesterday came accolades for Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, the Nigerian-born medical doctor leading the Pfizer trial for the coronavirus vaccine in the United States.

Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu

• NMA, NCDC, others hail Ogbuagu
• Nigerians are gifted people, says ex-TransCorp chief, Ozigbo

From local health experts and professional bodies yesterday came accolades for Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, the Nigerian-born medical doctor leading the Pfizer trial for the coronavirus vaccine in the United States.

Ogbuagu is also director of the HIV Clinical Trials programme of the Yale AIDS Programme, Section of Infectious Diseases of the Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, New York City.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he is the Yale principal investigator on multiple investigational therapeutic and preventative clinical trials for COVID-19, including remdesivir, now United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, leronlimab and remdesivir and tocilizumab combination therapy, as well as the Pfizer/BioNTech Vaccine trial.

Ogbuagu is part of a team of researchers for Pfizer, which jointly announced with BioNTech that a vaccine against COVID-19 had been developed with 95 per cent efficacy. The vaccine has been tested on 43,500 people in six countries with no safety concerns raised.

It was often discussed that a vaccine would hopefully be at least 50 per cent effective but Pfizer and BioNTech are reporting that their vaccines are more than 90 per cent effective, sparking concerns on how such a high level of efficacy was achieved.

Speaking about what this would mean for the process moving forward, Ogbuagu, an Associate Professor of Medicine and infectious disease specialist at Yale and one of the doctors leading the Pfizer trial, said the feat signals the beginning of the end for COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think you know those of us involved in the trials are really super excited by the results that were really quite unexpected, Ogbuagu told ABC news channel. “You know we’ve quite expected that the vaccines should at least have more than 50 per cent efficacy… But it’s just so heartwarming that the vaccines have been so effective,” he said.

Reacting to the discovery, the immediate past President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Transcorp Plc, Valentine Ozigbo, said it was undeniable that Nigerians are gifted people who thrive wherever they find themselves.

“When news of the highly effective Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine broke, I had the feeling that Nigerian brains were part of it,” Ozigbo told The Guardian yesterday. “The news that a Nigerian Associate Professor of Medicine at Yale University, Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, is one of the doctors leading the Pfizer vaccine trial affirmed my conviction.”

Ogbuagu is the son of former vice chancellor of Abia State University Professor Chibuzo Ogbuagu, who also served as secretary to the Abia State Government.

A twin, Onyema was born in the United States of America while his parents were pursuing doctorate degrees in Yale. The family had returned to Nigeria during which Onyema studied Medicine at the University of Calabar in 2003, interned at the Ebonyi State University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, before returning to Yale University for further studies where he currently teaches and leads groundbreaking research.

MEANWHILE, the United States (U.S.) embassy had, on Monday, commended Ogbuagbu for helping “the drug company Pfizer develop the first effective COVID-19 vaccine in the United States.”

“Nigerians contribute to the world in so many ways. Our hats off to Dr. Onyema Ogbuagbu at Yale who helped develop a COVID-19 vaccine,” the embassy said.

Ogbuagu’s mother, Stella Ogbuagu, a professor of Sociology, was best graduating student of the 1974 class at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). His twin brother is an engineer.

“I am so proud of him,” Ozigbo said in an exchange with The Guardian, yesterday.

“And it’s great because having a very effective vaccine would help us achieve that so-called immunity which would mean that we have enough people who receive the vaccine and are protected against the virus. This could be the beginning of the end of the epidemic,” Dr Ogbuagu said in an interview.

Pfizer is launching a pilot delivery programme in just four states of the United States, with one of the big challenges being that the vaccine needs to be stored at negative 94 degrees.

On how to preserve its efficacy while shipping, Ogbuagu gave some insights: “Yes, you know it’s recognised that the cold chain is an issue, especially for Pfizer. But you know these have been known way ahead of time and so preparations are being made, both under Government and appropriate networks; as well as Pfizer who is also helping with their own independent distribution plan.”

He said the arrangements would include capacity to have vaccines stored at those temperature levels to keep the vaccine up to 30 days.

According to Ogbuagu, it is exciting that that there are opportunities to factor in those requirements with so much hope, especially coming at the moment “we’re hitting another surge in this virus.”

As part of a community of ambassadors working to assure Americans that the vaccine research was done safely, Ogbuagu acknowledged that a lot of people might still be hesitant to get the vaccine even after it is approved.

He said although the research community was celebrating an effective vaccine, even some healthcare workers could express that hesitancy for vaccine. “So, a lot of work really needs to be done to reassure them. And I hope I’m doing so, also going on a programme to really show the public that, even though the vaccine trials have proceeded at an unprecedented pace, it is being done carefully and thoughtfully with the right amount of oversight, and that sort of vaccine receives emergency use authorization by FDA.”

He said all the safety checks and “the efficacy numbers are real and that should really reassure the public.”

In the same vein, Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Innovative Biotech Limited, Keffi, Nassarawa State and chair of the Africa COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacturing Task Force, Dr. Simon Agwale, commended Dr. Ogbuagu on his efforts in discovering an effective vaccine.

“We are very proud of the efforts by Dr. Ogbuagu and several other Nigerian scientists and health professionals in Nigeria and the diaspora, especially as part of efforts to end the acute phase of this COVID-19 pandemic,” Ihekweazu said.

“Despite the challenges in our country, there are several Nigerians that have been well-trained through our educational system and are in turn, contributing to scientific knowledge and interventions globally.

“At NCDC, we have received strong support from some of these health professionals in the diaspora through groups like Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas (ANPA), Nigerian Association of Pharmacists & Pharmaceutical Scientists in the Americas among others.

“We recognise and appreciate the incredible efforts of Nigerian scientists working in Nigeria, and those in the Diaspora.”

Agwale said Dr. Ogbuagu’s contribution to the clinical development of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine is indeed highly commendable.

“The interesting thing about Dr. Ogbuagu is that he studied medicine in Nigeria and went on to become an Associate Professor of Medicine in one of the most prestigious universities, contributing to clinical development of various drugs and vaccines against infectious diseases. I hope Nigeria will use researchers like this to help build our clinical trial infrastructure so that Nigeria can contribute to finding cures and other preventive measures against diseases that plague us.”

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) also joined in celebrating Nigerian-born researcher, Dr. Ogbuagbu, for his role in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

President, NMA, Prof. Innocent Ujah, told The Guardian yesterday that it was a vindication that Nigerian doctors were well trained. “It shows they are committed. It shows they are focused. But unfortunately, they are not valued here. This is why many Nigerian doctors are travelling out of the country,” he said.

“The achievement is not just for the NMA but his family, the Federal Government of Nigeria and Africa. The government should recognise that the young man has made the country proud.

MEANWHILE, Emory University is partnering with Nigerian institutions: Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) Yaba; University of Lagos (UNILAG); and AIDS Prevention Initiative Nigeria (APIN)) to provide state-of-the-art in-country research training with focus on methodologies, rigorous mentorship, and grant management capacity building.