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Made-in-Nigeria vaccines: Waiting for Godot!

By Titilola Obilade
24 December 2020   |   2:22 am
According to the Constitution of Nigeria, her motto is “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress.” It also states that one of the responsibilities of her citizens is to “make positive and useful contribution to the advancement,....

According to the Constitution of Nigeria, her motto is “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress.” It also states that one of the responsibilities of her citizens is to “make positive and useful contribution to the advancement, progress and well-being of community of residence.” The more than 50 thousand worded document further states that anyone who wants to naturalise to become a Nigerian citizen must prove s/he is able to make “useful contribution to the advancement; progress and well-being of Nigeria.” The word progress is used only three times in the Constitution of Nigeria as I have quoted above.

Sadly, Nigerians at home do not seem to make measurable progress when they are within the territorial borders of Nigeria. It doesn’t matter that globally Nigeria has produced the finest brains in every field from music to arts and medicine including cutting edge technology. However, as soon as our Nigerian youths are able to get outside our shores by hook or crook, they progress beyond even the wildest dreams of some parents. Given an enabling environment, Nigerians can also land on the moon and on Mars.

Teni, the singer got it right in her song, Billionaire that “Otedola o lori meji” i.e Otedola, the billionaire does not have two heads. Similarly, our young men and women that seem to “wake up/soji” in foreign lands do not have two heads although it may appear so. It is the same “head” they had in Nigeria that they took to the foreign lands. The difference was in the environment, in the leadership and political will of the receiving foreign land that enabled their “head” to make it. At the same time, we do have Nigerians who have traveled abroad and did not make it there due to institutional racism or other distractions. They do come back to Nigeria and have rebounding successes.

I would stay only on the positive progress because we do have Nigerians that have stepped out of our borders and descended into the abyss of negative progression if we can call it that. These are the ones who have allowed their exceptional brains and the lure of a foreign way of life lead them into scams and legitimately, unenviable lifestyles.

Going back to Nigerians who make exceptional progress abroad, I would like us to examine why the same person is not able to achieve similar successes in Nigeria. Quick answers to that will be that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASSU) nine- month strike is a case in point, endless colossal loss of lives from consistent, lack of security, ubiquitous unemployment, weakened and non-existent infrastructures. These are just a tip of the iceberg. Like the iceberg phenomenon, beneath the tip lies something much bigger than can be seen casually; the generational roll-over effect of poor leadership and mismanagement of all of our resources. Like our telephone service providers allow roll over of unused phone credits, the foundational crux of the matter has been a rolling over of bad leadership that makes the environment anemic to progress.

However, once our young men and women make the progress abroad, like in resignation to man-made fate, we are quick to lay claim to their Nigerian nationality. True! But we can do better than just riding on the coattails of Nigerians who have become successful abroad.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the draft landscape of candidate vaccines in November shows that there are currently 48 candidate vaccines at the clinical evaluation stage and 164 candidate vaccines in the pre-clinical stage. There are three promising vaccine candidates from the clinical evaluation stage; BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine candidates. The United Kingdom began its first vaccination on the 8th of December. None of these three were birthed in Nigeria but a Nigerian-trained medical doctor, Onyema Ogbuagbu has contributed to the development of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine for the novel coronavirus. As usual, Nigerians at home and abroad were quick to congratulate one of their own. If Onyema Ogbuagbu had remained in Nigeria, will the political climate and existing infrastructures have enabled or disabled him from contributing to a vaccine made outside Nigeria? It’s unlikely that Nigeria’s political climate would have enabled him to contribute to vaccine production in a foreign land. What with non-payment of doctors’ salaries? Where are the Made-in- Nigeria Vaccines? Are we waiting for another Godot?

Samuel Beckett was a Nobel prize winner for literature. He was an Irish man who wrote the play Waiting for Godot. Godot was a third character in his play that two other characters kept waiting for but Godot never showed up. Out of the 164 pre-clinical vaccine candidates in the pre-clinical stage, only one was from Nigeria; Helix Biogen Consult, Ogbomoso & Trinity Immonoefficient Laboratory, Ogbomoso, Oyo State, Nigeria led by Dr. Oladipo Kolawole. In spite of the abundance of resources in every state in Nigeria, we have not been able to produce more than one vaccine candidate that was able to enter the WHO’s draft list of pre-clinical candidate vaccines! It is still an achievement considering that only a handful of African countries were on the list.

Historically, Nigeria once produced vaccines for small pox, anti-rabies and yellow fever for human use. We also exported to a few African countries. In 1986, Nigeria locally produced yellow fever vaccines that contained the yellow fever outbreak. Nigeria no longer has the funds to resuscitate local production of vaccines. In 2017, Nigeria was unable to provide sufficient vaccines for the Cerebro Spinal Meningitis (CSM) Serotype C outbreak. Further, Nigeria has had to borrow money to vaccinate her citizens.

A careful study of how Nigeria got to its present predicament is a painful revelation of how leadership has become personalized above national interests; diarrheic educational systems, corruption, nepotism, greed, tribalism, mediocrity, hostile political climate, moribund infrastructure and non-consequential responses to incompetent leadership.

Nigeria has a National Vaccine Production Laboratory (NVPL) that is now defunct. In 1991, the government planned on reactivating the facility but as of 2020, it is ostensibly a slow work in progress. It now operates Biovaccines Nigeria Limited (BVNL). In 2017, Nigeria and May and Baker, a pharmaceutical company agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to restart the local production of vaccines. The project was to be handled by BVNL. If things had gone according to plan, Nigeria should have produced vaccines by July of last year. Due to what I call the “Nigeria factor”, we are yet to restart the local production of vaccines. We have been handed a lucid excuse in that the pandemic has slowed things down. Yes! Notwithstanding, countries that have had 100 times the number of our confirmed coronavirus cases have submitted several candidate vaccines to the WHO and are still submitting more. Understandably, these countries do not share the foundational problems plaguing Nigeria.

We only need to look at our elected officers; the jumbo pension package of governors, the salaries and allowances of our legislators, the unrepentant display of wealth, the mismanagement of natural resources in each state of the Federation, the endless borrowing of money to service our national debts from multiple organizations, the ever increasing uncompleted projects, the over inflated contracts, the visitation of Chinese “doctors” during the early phase of the pandemic, the multiple medical tourism from our elected leaders are telling of the way this train is going if we do not change our orientations.

As it is now, Nigeria does not have a say on when or how exactly we’ll be getting our vaccines. Whichever way, the cookie crumbles. We as a nation that once produced and exported vaccines are dependent on the whims and caprices of the donor nations. As it is, the rich nations are buying up billions of vaccine doses for their citizens while we have to patiently wait for whatever the WHO is able to give us through COVAX facility. I discussed COVAX in two previous articles in The Guardian; “Bringing COVID-19 Vaccine to the World: a Race of Prowess” and “Three Promising Vaccines; What Next.”

We have the means to couple our resources together so that we can produce our own Made-in-Nigeria vaccines. We should not reduce ourselves to riding on the coattails of vaccine breakthroughs from Nigerians abroad. We can harness our human and material resources, prioritize local vaccine production, strengthen existing infrastructures, encourage foreign training of our researchers, provide a friendly and inviting political climate for investors and researchers, provide sufficient funds, commitment to leadership that is above selfish interests, transparency and accountability in governance and just maybe, it is possible for Godot to arrive! Progress is possible.
Obilade, a medical doctor and an Associate Professor of Public Health, wrote from Abuja.