Sitting on a coronavirus goldmine
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fear had been that the virus was going to unleash an unmitigated devastation in Nigeria. This fear was not unfounded to say the least. It was predicated on the simple fact that the nation’s healthcare system is weak, obsolete, and inadequate to handle a pandemic of this magnitude. It’s now almost a year into the pandemic, while the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in developed and developing countries around the world, Nigeria has been mostly spared and left unscathed by the deadly virus. As of Friday, November 13, 2020 the country had recorded just under 65,000 cases with less than 1,500 deaths. In comparison, on that same day, the United States, the richest and by far the most scientific advanced country in the world, had a single day record of more than 184,000 new cases, 65,000 hospitalizations, and more than 1,300 deaths. All across the US, state governments have started re imposing restrictions on movements and gatherings in order to curtail the ongoing winter surge; the US is still unable to bend the pandemic curve. But not so in Nigeria. The pandemic curve has been persistently flat. Besides a few spikes in certain hotspots here and there, the country never experienced a surge because the virus simply did not establish a foothold.
Many infectious disease experts, public health practitioners, and those at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, have struggled to come up with a logical and convincing explanation for this phenomenon. Up till now, no one has been able to provide an answer to this unexpected turn of event. On their part, Nigerians giddily and proudly tout these low numbers of COVID-19 cases and they’ve resorted to all sorts of wild speculations to explain why their country is seemingly untouched by the pandemic. They have variously attributed this low infectivity to sunlight, heat, humidity, inherent immunization from chronic endemicity of malaria, widespread use of chloroquine, among many other factors. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that COVID-19 is nothing but a fabrication of the Nigerian government officials who, hiding under the guise of providing relief to the general public from the economic hardship caused by a fake pandemic, enrich themselves at taxpayers’ expense. In medical science, the breakthroughs for many diseases have often come by studying populations who appear to be unaffected by those diseases or who experience only mild symptoms of the diseases.
In the HIV field for instance, research studies in certain group of HIV infected individuals known as elite controllers and long-term non-progressors, i.e. individuals infected with HIV but who remain symptom free long after being infected, have contributed greatly to the understanding of the pathogenesis of HIV infection, and such research studies have led to the discovery and development of many of the drugs currently used in the treatment of the disease. At a time when the whole world is looking for a remedy for a novel pandemic, Nigeria seems to be sitting on the solution. It is not too far-fetched to think that the answer to COVID-19 may be found by studying the course of the disease among Nigerians. Conducting research studies in the Nigerian population may yield a wealth of information that would contribute to the understanding the pathogenesis of the virus and advance COVID-19 science. A systematic examination of the rather low rates of infectivity and case fatality of Coronavirus in the country may hold the key to finding the treatment and cure for the pandemic.
Nigerian scientists appear to be sitting on a goldmine, yet they seem oblivious to it. The COVID-19 pandemic is a once in a lifetime opportunity that has presented itself on a platter of gold to Nigeria’s cadre of medical researchers/scientists, providing them a chance to showcase their brilliance and ingenuity to a desperate world. There has never been a better time for the Nigerian scientific and medical intelligentsia to attract to themselves millions of dollars in research funding which, under normal circumstances, would have been beyond their reach.
Instead of putting on their thinking caps and engaging in serious intellectual exercise that will yield scientific answers that will unlock the COVID-19 mystery, Nigerian medical practitioners, like the ordinary illiterates and half-literates on the streets, peddle idle conspiracy theories, silly myths, and old wives’ tales about the origin of, and cure for, Coronavirus.
Without question, Nigerian scientists have more than what it takes to make significant and impactful contributions to the scientific breakthrough in the therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19. If only they’d channel their minds and focus their ingenuity on this global menace, they’d quickly realize they have an unprecedented opportunity not only to become leaders in COVID-19 science, but also to transform their dilapidated medical schools and antiquated teaching hospitals from stone age relics to state-of-the-art institutions of scientific innovations and real centers of medical excellence with the millions of dollars in research funds waiting to be tapped and available to be mined.
Both governmental and non-profit entities all over the developed world are currently pumping endless amount of money and resources into COVID-19 therapeutic and vaccine research that run into billions of dollars. Nigerian Medical scientists and researchers are well positioned to partake in this windfall of research funding that is now available to anyone from anywhere who has serious, well thought out scientific hypothesis for COVID-19 that can be studied in well designed and ethically conducted research studies. The biomedical research world is currently experiencing a rare deluge of research funding like never before; it is a downpour of limitless funds the likes of which they’ve never witnessed. It’ll be a sad thing if Nigeria loses out on this golden age of research funding. Like that passage from the Bible, “Ask and you shall receive,” these opportunities are begging to be had, all it takes is for Nigerian medical researchers to ask.
This is a call to all Nigerian medical scientists, “Wake up!” Enough of the conspiracy theories, end-time eschatology, and
meaningless chatters on social media. Dive deep into the scientific literature, put on your thinking cap, and make hay while the sun still shines.
Ojumu, MD, MPH, is of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.