By Ehichioya Ezomon
The third (3) part of this serial on April 19, 2021, examined Nigeria’s lack of capability to conduct clinical trials of vaccines, including for COVID-19, and how to tackle the challenges therefrom.
The next stage is to develop and produce vaccines, and again, Nigeria has no capabilities to deliver, declares Dr Simon Agwale, the Chair of Africa COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative and Chief Executive Officer of Innovative Biotech USA and Nigeria.
Dr Agwale, a virologist and vaccinologist, has many years of experience “combining top-level scientific research with the operations of Biotech companies, and he’s involved in academic research at various institutions in Nigeria, Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.”
With his expertise and experience, Dr Agwale has spoken at different fora and in media interviews, including on Channels Television, on Nigeria’s preparedness for vaccine production.
And without mincing words, he says Nigeria is far from being a vaccine producer because “the necessary infrastructure needed for the arduous standardised processes is lacking in the country.”
Dr Agwale’s verdict is abridged for this part of the serial, beginning with his response to Health Minister Osagie Ehanire’s disclosure of Nigeria’s development of two candidate vaccines in need of funds for clinical trials that Nigeria doesn’t even have the fitness for.
Dr Agwale’s words: “When the announcement (of the candidate vaccines) was made, they did not publish the names and institutions where these things were made. Vaccine development (and) manufacturing is not rocket science, but it is not a trivial issue.
“Currently, I can tell you with all confidence that there is no capacity in the country to develop and produce vaccines. These are not things that you just wake up overnight and you want to do.
“We have to be careful about the information that we send, or we become a laughing stock globally. When you say vaccines are developed in Nigeria, the world knows how vaccines are developed, and the infrastructure you need to develop vaccines.”
Dr Agwale highlights the processes leading to developing vaccines for testing in animals and human trials, with facilities of “good laboratory practices,” and “good manufacturing practices.”
“I am in the U.S. developing vaccines because there is no capacity in the country (Nigeria) to do that,” Dr Agwale says. “To develop a vaccine, the first is you have to have a standard tissue culture laboratory with 24-hour power. When you make the vaccine, you have to test it in animals.
“This animal facility has to be according to what we call good laboratory practices. There is no single animal facility in Nigeria that is operating according to good laboratory practices.
“When you finish your animal studies, you have to produce the initial dose for human trials, and that has to be done according to good manufacturing practices. There is no single factory in Nigeria that is producing vaccines according to good manufacturing practices.”
Dr Agwale isn’t just a fault finder, but also a problem solver. Hence, he explains the international dimension to vaccine production, noting, “right now, we cannot make a vaccine in Nigeria and say the world should accept it. This cannot be done.”
“That is why I say bring international vaccine manufacturing expertise in Nigeria. Whatever you produce in Nigeria is not only for Nigerians, but is going to be used throughout Africa and the world. You have to abide by all the necessary standards that are in place.
“It can be done by discussing how we can make this happen. We have the Nigeria Institute for Medical Research, the Medical Institute for Pharmaceutical Research, and some universities. This can be done, but currently none of these exists.”
Dr Agwale stresses collaboration between government and the private sector, which, of course, should lead, with the government providing the enabling environment and support.
As a take-off point, he wants the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to work with the CACOVID (Coalition Against COVID-19, – a Private Sector task force in partnership with the Federal Government, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to combat the coronavirus)), to develop some platform/initiative to kick-start the process.
Dr Agwale says: “In vaccine production, the private sector has to take the lead. If you look at the companies producing COVID-19 vaccines, they are all private initiatives, but the government has to produce the enabling environment for this to be achieved.
“For you to set up an end-to-end facility to produce between 200 million and 400 million vaccines per annum, you are talking about $50 million to $60 million to make that happen.
“This is just a drop in the ocean based on the impact of COVID-19. The CACOVID and CBN can create an initiative or platform or soft-funding arrangement, which is done globally.”
On the need for government’s involvement in the development and production of vaccines, Dr Agwale says: “The reason we have COVID-19 vaccines created in a record time of less than one year, is because there were serious government interventions, willing to give companies grants and advancing other interventions to make sure that these vaccines are made.
“This is what I expect from the Nigerian Government. African Vaccine Initiative is the place to go. They tell you who is doing what on the continent.
“The government needs to engage with the right partners in the country and bring them on board. You need to go out of your way to make this happen. You can’t expect a miracle to happen. If that is the case, we wouldn’t have had COVID-19 vaccines today.”
As a parting shot, Dr Agwale urges the Federal Government to prioritize the vaccination of only two million eligible Nigerians with the four million vaccines it has received.
The reason being doubts as to when Nigeria would get another batch of the vaccines. Thus, he advises that the government should only “vaccinate two million citizens… who are sure of getting their second shot of the vaccine.”
Dr Agwale’s direct and frank assessment of Nigeria’s incapacity to produce vaccines should strike the right cord with the government, as it’s imperative to find local remedies for deadly ailments, as poor nations are obviously starved of COVID-19 vaccines.
Well, a Supplementary Budget is going to the National Assembly, to partly fund COVID-19 vaccination, and prospect to develop and produce coronavirus vaccines locally, to meet Nigeria’s huge demand estimated at 140 million doses in the next two years.
LAST LINE: Next on the serial: America, Europe and India are using COVID-19 vaccines as a weapon of nationalism against poor and developing countries. What’s Nigeria saying and doing to remedy this challenge that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo likens to “a world imposing unfair burdens on developing countries”?
Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos