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COVID-19 vaccine trials beyond Nigeria’s rhetoric

By Editorial Board
17 August 2020   |   4:22 am
A report the other day revealed how Nigeria, Africa’s richest and most populous nation missed out on the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine trials and race to end the pandemic.

A report the other day revealed how Nigeria, Africa’s richest and most populous nation missed out on the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine trials and race to end the pandemic. This is coming at a time the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, is getting laid back on scientific research and development aspects of the medical emergency. However, it is not a time to overlook or give up on indigenous solutions. But by extension, deepening clinical and pharmaceutical capacities ahead of the feisty competition and pharmaceutical politics that await a cure remains germane, in this connection. 
Globally, the race for coronavirus vaccine is nearing a fever pitch. Besides the urgency to flatten the curve, save lives and arrest the devastating economic effects of the pandemic, the political motivation is most dominant among the active countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has received 166 potential vaccines out of which 19 are being tested on humans in clinical studies. Russia has taken everyone by surprise with its SARS-CoV-2 virus vaccine, already named Sputnik-V. Just after two months, the vaccine has scaled phase three hurdle and President Putin plans a roll out for January 1, 2021. The process is still raising curiosities in medical circles. In other countries, it takes as much as five to 10 years to get a vaccine ready.  

The African continent is not left out of the race, just as two per cent of the global trials is currently being conducted in South Africa and Egypt. Indeed, South Africa is the first country on the continent to start a clinical trial with the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg testing a vaccine developed by the Oxford Jenner Institute in the United Kingdom. The South African Ox1Cov-19 Vaccine VIDA-Trial is expected to involve 2000 volunteers aged 18 to 65 years, including some people living with HIV. Similar studies are ongoing in the UK and Brazil. All of these countries have a very high prevalence of COVID-19 infection.

But the numbers are not adding up in Nigeria and that may explain the lack of patronage. Despite our demographic advantage, Nigeria has one of the least numbers of COVID-19 tests, which makes our low incidences a suspect. Nigeria with 200 million people has tested fewer than one million cases to have over 46, 000 positive cases and 950 deaths. South Africa has less than 60 million people, but has conducted 3.2 million tests, with 563,000 positives and 10, 000-plus deaths. Egypt comes next to South Africa on the high prevalence scale, with 95,442 positive cases and over 5, 000 deaths. 

Besides the inadequate testing, Nigeria has not shown more than a passing interest in the pandemic’s knowledge base. This newspaper once warned that there should be more to the existential crisis than just to tag along, or copy and paste approach to medical emergencies that are still not fully understood. More so, COVID-19 has proven to be a global pandemic with local dynamics. That underscores the dearth of uniformity in its behaviour, morbidity and mortality from one region to the other and country to country. The same should best apply to potential cure and vaccines, in which Nigeria cannot afford to be slipshod. After the public reaction that heralded the imported Madagascan botched herbal remedy and submission of indigenous drugs to the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), nothing has been heard of homegrown remedy. It is another way to tell the world that we are not ready.

Worst is the mutual distrust between government’s legislations, programmes and the people. The controversial Infectious Disease Control Bill episode at the National Assembly (NASS) was a bad advertisement for the country. The global community could glean from the legislative blunder and attendant meltdown that the most populous black nation has no collectively agreed infectious disease control laws, coupled with public phobia for emerging innovations. More so, the Nigerian public space is awash with diverse unscientific claims that linked coronavirus vaccines to human monitoring chips and signs of the apocalypse. Many, including the educated elite, still link 5G to the pandemic or dismiss the problem as a ruse. Such dizzying climate of confusion has never been productive to genuine scientific research and trails. 
The impediments are indeed enormous, but there is still no better time for the state actors to pay more attention to scientific core arms of the pandemic and less on the mundane fallouts of the problems itself. The Presidential Task Force has wasted too much free airtime talking about the problems than solutions. It is a known fact that Nigeria is yet to reach the peak of the pandemic as Boss Mustapha reiterated the other day. What he did not mention is knowledge-based efforts to prevent the worst and grim threshold of thousand-plus deaths. The truth is that most Nigerians are getting bored with routine pedestrian matters that are offshoots of the coronavirus. They want to hear new things that inspire hope like Nigeria contributing to the 1,439 recognised studies in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) database. Nigerians want some feedback that our funded local researches are yielding fruits, promising in disease control and can save us from death. They want to hear the good news that Nigeria is leading the rest of the continent in the way of a sustainable solution to the existential crisis. 

Oyewale Tomori, a professor of virology and consultant to the WHO, noted the other day that Nigeria has signed on to the WHO solidarity drug trials; it is time to raise confidence and demonstrate capacity for vaccine clinical trials. Ideally, a proper avenue to draw global attention is to invest in local research towards a cure as this newspaper has consistently noted. Findings with good potential should be tested locally ahead of international validation. In the process, the capacity of indigenous pharmaceutical companies should be enhanced for mass production of either drugs or vaccines. With these parameters in place, it becomes easier to draw attention and be patronised either for the clinical trials or production of the consumables.
Without Nigeria contributing to the solution, we will certainly be caught in the web of pharmaceutical politics and get stranded when the cure is found. Recent findings have shown that the superpowers have staked $10 billion to acquire vaccines straight from the production line. The United States and Britain have already paid for doses enough to go round their population at least twice. The fear is that it will still not be enough, given the failure rate of such novel vaccines. Local experts are, therefore, unanimous that Nigeria will have very slim chances of benefitting from early vaccines or call it an insurance policy, without participating in its build up or showing sufficient capacity in that regard. But this is an avoidable consequence that a functional leadership can immediately begin to address for public good. As it is often said, the best time to do good was yesterday. The next best time is now!