By Ehichioya Ezomon
Finding a drug or vaccine for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 was unrealized early on due to several factors, chiefly the relatively unknown nature of the virus, and the fact that drugs and vaccines cannot be produced overnight.
Producing drugs and vaccines takes time because they have to undergo clinical trials, which, in the case of a vaccine, could take between 18 months and two years at the earliest or never really achieved, for instance, vaccines for HIV and dengue till date.
Insistence by scientists on “proper” clinical trials during outbreaks frustrate many around the world, especially leaders and relatives of sick people, who want administered any “touted” drugs.
For COVID-19, scientists had to fall back on existing therapies produced to combat other diseases. A switch to these drugs is what Maurice Iwu, a Nigerian Professor of Pharmacognosy, describes as “repurposing” – “the use of something for a purpose other than its original intended use.” In the pharmaceutical industry, “medications are ‘repurposed’ by being frequently used to treat illnesses and symptoms for which they were not originally intended.”
With all modesty, I’ve written on COVID-19, and the available or potential remedies – Chloroquine, Hydroxychloroquine, Remdesivir, Azithromycin and Zinc, and candidate vaccines being developed by companies and institutions across the globe.
* Let’s have a look at summaries of some of the articles. The first on March 23, 2020, “COVID-19: Frightening attitude of Nigerians,” is an investigative piece on Nigerians denying the pandemic, with a respondent in Lagos warning, “I don’t believe these stories. There is no (corona)virus in Nigeria. So, stop causing panic.”
* The April 20, 2020, article, “COVID-19 prophecy: Fufeyin stakes reputation,” dealt with the prediction by Warri-based Nigerian Prophet Jeremiah Omoto Fufeyin of Christ Mercyland Deliverance Ministry (CMDM), that the virus, which then had topped 2.2 million in infections and close to 160,000 in deaths worldwide, would, “in a matter of weeks,” disappear, stealthily, the way it came.
But the pandemic hasn’t gone away, as Prophet Fufeyin declared. As at 12:12 GMT on April 10, 2021, worldometers.info reported that global infections and deaths had surpassed 135,447,265 and 2,931,704, respectively, while recovered stood at 108,993,258.
* As the April 27, 2020, article, “COVID-19: Isn’t chloroquine stop-gap ‘saviour’?” indicates, in the absence of a new drug, chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine were plied as “very promising” for treatment of the coronavirus.
For instance, Dr Zev Zelenko of Monroe in New York, U.S., claimed to use hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and zinc sulfate, to treat 500 COVID-19 patients without “deaths, hospitalisations and intubations” (the insertion of a tube into the body).
As Dr Zelenko wrote in a letter to former President Donald Trump: “Of this group (he treated) and the information provided to me by affiliated medical teams, we have had ZERO deaths, ZERO hospitalizations, and ZERO intubations.”
The Chief Medical Director (CMD) of the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Nigeria, Prof. Jesse Otegbayo, who tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, and survived, said in an interview: “I took chloroquine based on recommendation by my physician. I have studies that have shown the efficacy of chloroquine.”
However, chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine were linked with “serious heart rhythm problems, especially when paired with the antibiotic, azithromycin.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) thus iterated its warning that, “to decrease the risk of… heart problems, patients should only use the medication in hospital settings.”
* The May 4, 2020 article on, “COVID-19: Where’s Nigeria in drugs, vaccines?” focused on the “repurposing” of “remdesivir,” a failed therapy for Ebola produced by Gilead, but approved by the FDA for emergency treatment of COVID-19 “sickest patients” in hospitals.
Commenting on remdesivir, Chief Medical Advisor to President Joe Biden and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci, likened the drug to the discovery of AZT (azidothymidine) as “a weapon” against HIV in 1984.
* The May 11, 2020, piece on, “COVID-19: Here comes ‘Madagascar cure’,” analysed a Madagascar-produced drug, “COVID Organics,” a herbal tea, touted by President Andry Rajoelina as a wonder remedy for the virus.
Rajoelina sent batches to African countries, including Nigeria, at a time price speculators were betting on as low as $5,000 (N1,525,000/N2,425,000 – then and now) to as high as $10,000 (N3,050,000/N4,850,000) for a full treatment with remdesivir.
* A January 4, 2021, article, “Nigerians defy order, celebrate crossover,” focused on Nigerians dismissing another wave of the pandemic, and new fast-moving Brazilian, UK and South African variants, to welcome 2021 with pomp and ceremony.
Not even government’s threats to impose a stricter lockdown than that of 2020 could deter opening of worship centres, holding wild parties in streets, and heralding the countdown to 2021 with pyrotechnic (fireworks) lighting up the night skies.
Because Nigeria didn’t publicly embrace a particular remedy for COVID-19, many Nigerians, who doubted the disease, and shunned recommended hygienic and social protocols, resorted to taking local concoctions and over the counter (OTC) medications.
And why not? Reports from isolation/treatment centres spoke of “patients” given only multivitamins, and made to stay under the early morning sun for 15 to 20 minutes, and observe a nine-hour sleep or rest, to boost their immune system to fight the virus.
So, why go into the centres, “where you weren’t sure of coming out alive, and your remains become official property,” rather than self-medicate with concoctions or over the counter medications?
Yet, as many countries were testing and trying out several candidate vaccines, Nigeria perceptively remained a passive participant until lately when Health Minister Osagie Ehanire stated that the country has developed two vaccines awaiting funding for trial runs.
Dr Ehanire’s words: “The Ministry of Health is honoured to be able to work with the Ministry of Science and Technology. We have been able to work on vaccines; we have at least two candidate vaccines, which we are looking for resources to take them to the level of clinical trial and after the clinical trials to entrepreneurs, who will now boost the production of the vaccines.”
Makes one to wonder: Why couldn’t funding for search for drugs and vaccines be factored into the billions of private donations and government allocations to the operations for COVID-19?
Or the government, seeking freebies, didn’t prioritise homegrown remedies for the virus, but preferred to wait for handouts from the World Health Organization, the African Union and private entities?
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos