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Why Nigeria can’t produce COVID-19 vaccine yet — PTF chief

Why Nigeria can't produce COVID-19 vaccine yet — PTF chief

The National Incident Manager (NIM) of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Mukhtar Muhammad, speaks with BOLAJI OGUNDELE on the nation’s response to the pandemic, shedding light on vaccine procurement, distribution and the conspiracy theories around it, as well as the issue of the recently discovered variant of the virus. Excerpts:


Compliance is a serious problem in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic because many Nigerians still doubt there is anything like it. How do you think the problem can be handled?

The issue of compliance is a difficult one. No matter the amount of information out there on the field, you still have people who are resistant. But it is good to know that we’ve made some significant progress since these activities started. You will recall that early last year, around March/April some people did not believe that COVID-19 existed. But I think through the work the media have been doing, people have now been sensitised. We do what we call the NYE polling, which is calling people randomly to find out some information. It has been consistent. Over 86 per cent of the people are aware of COVID-19 and are aware of PTF activities. So we are making progress in that direction.

There’s still a lot to be done in terms of debunking false news. The conspiracy theories, which actually keep evolving and changing, from those that say the NCDC is manufacturing figures so that we can get money from foreign donors to those who are saying that we want to vaccinate everyone so that we would place microchip on people to monitor what they are doing. From the sublime to the ridiculous, all those are going on. So it takes the continuous efforts of those who have the responsibility to make sure that people are continuously educated, people are aware of the issues and to make sure that people in position of influence—political leaders, religious leaders, community leaders—are carried along and they understand. That is one of the things we are making our priorities, and we are really engaging these groups of people seriously to ensure that the public is fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

Is there any reason to fear vaccines?

Vaccines are not new. They have been used all over the world for a long time, and there are scientific ways of manufacturing or using them. The vaccines themselves are either the virus or the organism, or a part of the organism or something that mimics the organism, that when it is introduced into a human body, the body prepares itself and attacks that false organism, so that when the invasion by the real organism occurs to the body, the body already knows how to fight it. It has produced neutralising agents. It is like a simulation exercise. You have an army, but your army does not know who the enemy is. So when you bring someone and show him that the person wearing dark glasses or covering his face or whatever is the enemy, your body reacts and recognises that person.

In real life, we have dogs in our homes. Some visitors will come and the dog will not bark. But some people will come, may be because of their looks or may be because they come late in the night or something, the dog will start barking. That is the way the immune system works with vaccines. The vaccine trains our body so that when we have the real infection our body fights it back.

Now to the conspiracy theories, like the COVID-19 vaccine, it is used globally and there is a huge scientific community that is involved in developing this vaccine. With science, when we produce something and you say this thing will work, the natural tendency of every scientist is to say it does not work. There is no effect of using that thing until it is proven and there are scientific ways of proving that these vaccines work. All protocols must be followed from stage one to stage two, stage three and community trial. All that have to be followed before a vaccine is certified for use.

Apart from that, we have to look at its efficacy and then the side effects. The contents of the vaccine will have to be fully analysed to know what it is made up of. And this is an open process; not something you do in your room. That is why we say vaccines produced, for example, in the USA, get clinical trial in Brazil or South Africa, because you have to have that wide range. The data is public; you have to know the number of people that have used it, you have to know those who have produced antibodies, those for whom the vaccine had worked and those for whom the vaccine had not worked. So it is very difficult for anyone to introduce something that will harm the population in terms of vaccines.

It has not been long that we had a lot of conspiracy theories in this country around polio vaccine. We all know how it ended. At least now that polio has been driven out of Nigeria, it means many more people have taken the vaccination and this is the result. So we assure Nigerians that all these processes are open processes. However, every country has a responsibility to take a double check to ensure that any substance that comes into the country undergoes a scientific validation process, one, to assure of the integrity of that drug or vaccine and also efficacy and safety for use. All those have to be followed whenever we have any new vaccine in Nigeria.

The new variant of COVID-19 first found in the UK is now in Nigeria. What is the PTF doing to prevent its spread in the country?

It is normal for viruses to undergo mutations. A lot of viruses do change within a short period of time, but viruses keep multiplying and they use the body of the person to start producing. So it is normal for viruses to undergo mutation and have variants. However, these particular cases we are talking about are mutants that are thought to be quite different from the one that had been seen. Any small change is not a problem, but when you have major changes, then they can be more pathogenic or there can be more severity or they can affect more people easily in terms of transmission.

What happened is that some people travelled and, in Canada, they found two people whose travels originated from Nigeria and they were found to have those mutants. One was also found in Japan, whose travel also originated from Nigeria and had that mutant. That is now making us to look onwards to say do we have this mutant circulating in Nigeria. Even before these incidents, we had been isolating samples that were positive for people who arrived from the UK or from South Africa, and these samples are undergoing sequencing, that is to identify the specific virus, the type of virus, the name of the virus or the mutant that is out there.

So we checked back on our database and realised that as far back as October, there was a mutant that came to Nigeria, which the UK announced only in December. You know that we already had that mutant in Nigeria. These ones that have been found, we are still looking at our database. We have continued doing the sequencing and we are also checking to find out if we still have those mutants in the country. So it is an ongoing exercise. Our centres that are running the sequencing have continued to do that, and they have continued to send these samples to them to find.

 Is this new variant more virulent than what we used to know?

This is the problem with viruses. Even globally now, it is only speculation to say that this particular variant actually has more pathogenicity or is causing more severity. We have not actually established that, but there is fear globally that the new mutant can actually be more virulent or more pathogenic in terms of transmission. We have to establish the fact. If you hear from the UK, some of the companies claimed that their vaccines can work against the new mutants of the virus. That is a claim; it has to be subject to scientific rigour to establish that it really works. So we need to distinguish sometimes news made by politicians or those made by businessmen. When somebody makes a claim, you have to put it under the scientific scale and go through the rigour and establish that this is really the case.

The research is going on and we have not yet been communicated that these statements are actually valid. But from the likely look of things, even though the mutants are different, they may not actually have high transmission and not likely have more severity. These need to be proven.

Are we likely to have Nigeria-made vaccine in a couple of months like the President charged the PTF recently?

We are highly optimistic that Nigeria should be able to commence the processes of getting our own vaccine, but the process is a very long one and it requires lots of resources. It is not something that government will handle but rather the private sector needs to come in and invest a lot. If you look at the countries that are producing the vaccines now, they are all private companies, and they injected billions of dollars into research and development before they come out with the vaccines.

Talking about the potential, absolutely Nigeria has the potential to produce vaccine. It is not new to us. In the early 1970s Nigeria was producing yellow fever vaccines in the National Institute of Medical Research in Lagos. Even currently, Nigeria is producing a lot of vaccines, but mostly for use in veterinary services. Our Veterinary Research Institute, Vom in Plateau State is actually doing that. So we only need to have the right conditions, the right institutions, and you need the fund to produce our vaccines. But like I said, it is a process that involves a lot of resources.

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