WHEN WILL HOME GROWN VACCINE TO CORONAVIRUS COME?

Sanya Oni

When all is said and done, one of the things that would stick out like a sore thumb among many of the instances of our pathetic response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its variegated correlates is the absence of an enabling presidential leadership.  For an administration that has been practically AWOL in all matters substantive, the other noteworthy observation is perhaps the astounding dissonance – the lack of coherence – among the actors at the highest echelon of government. Only that would perhaps explain why the Covid-19 has suddenly become less concerning than a ministerial pet project of getting all SIM cards integrated with the National Identity Number (NIN) and all expected to be concluded within a month. For those who thought that the country should be locked in a different kind of emergency given the surge in recent time of Covid-19 cases, Minister Isa Ali Patami has a contrary view: a country burdened by internal security challenges which in any case would outlast Covid-19 had bigger things to worry about than the super-spreader event that would follow a swoop on the NIMC offices to get an NIN. That is supposed to be a minor price for the citizens to pay given that the latter (terrorism) would still be with us long after Covid-19 is gone!

Dissonance could not have been more apt – or fitting description.

That, as I earlier noted, is however nowhere near the absence of enabling leadership that have characterized the management of Covid-19 pandemic. So much for the foibles of a certain Donald J. Trump, it would seem particularly doubtful that the world would have reached this point without Operation Warped Speed a wholly American presidential initiative designed to speed up the discovery and development of vaccines.

Last July, I had written on this page a piece titled Missing in Action to express my concern about the biggest economy on the continent not only missing in action in the race for Covid-19 vaccine but that she stood little chance of accessing them whenever they are ready. Unfortunately, this is what the events since the emergence of the breakthrough vaccines have since borne out. Thanks to the global pharm giants, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the world might have begun to see a tiny spark of light at the end of a long dark tunnel as far as the battle against the virus is concerned; we are now finding out that only those who get to their money where their mouths are not only gets served first, but also determines who and whether anyone else for that gets served in the end; and that all talks about globalism are cheap – it avails only after the big and the mighty have had their fill.

Now, we are stuck with the Hobson choice: to turn eastwards for the unproven Chinese vaccine, or wait endlessly on the West for the tiny droplets that would trickle down after the rich and the powerful have had their fill.

Sure, Nigeria will get the vaccines at some point; the relevant questions however are which, when and in what quantity.

The country, according to Health Minister Osagie Ehanire, has a working group in place to handle vaccines. It is also working with the COVAX programme backed by the World Health Organization. She is also in talks with vaccine manufacturers as well as teams in Britain and Russia. In fact, the United Arab Emirates is said to have introduced the country to the makers of a Chinese vaccine that its officials had tested.

And the big catch? Nigeria does not at present have many facilities that can store the Pfizer/BioNTech shot, which must be kept at minus 70 Celsius!

Sound familiar?

In all of these, only in the past few weeks was the nation actually reminded of the few worthy names in the local pharma/scientific community not only left in town but whose on-going endeavours could actually make a huge difference at this time.

To be sure, not a few Nigerians could claim to have heard of a certain IVERCOVID Research Group, at least, not until very recently when the group emerged from the shadows to present their work on Ivermectin, a drug, hitherto used in the treatment of River Blindness, to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. The group, said to be led by Femi Babalola, an Ophthalmologist and surgeon, Chris Bode, the Chief Medical Director of LUTH, the chairman of the Medical Advisory Council at LUTH, Lanre Adeyemo; a US-based Clinical Pharmacologist, Adesuyi Ajayi; two project virologists: S.A Omilabu and Olumuyiwa Salu; with Felix Alakaloko as  Project Coordinator. Not to these eminent Nigerian scientists a case of seeking to re-invent the scientific/pharmaceutical wheel; rather, what they sought was a “repurposing of an existing drug for the treatment of the pandemic. The work, carried out in the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) was said to have followed the report of a 5,000-fold reduction in viral load by Australian workers with in-vitro use of Ivermectin on COVID-19. Recall that the Americans actually undertook a similar work of “re-purposing” Remdesivir and the controversial hydroxychloroquine – all with limited, although incontrovertible results. Only that this time, the group of eminent scholars are not only well prepared by carefully documenting their breakthrough findings but are also ready to engage their peers in the global community on their findings.

By the way, whatever happened to Helix Biogen Consult, & Trinity Immonoefficient Laboratory, both in Ogbomoso, Oyo State, whose potential vaccine was listed among the candidates way back?

I do understand that the Buhari administration is highly interested in partnering with the IVERCOVID group to ensure that the country reaps the benefit of their work. That seems the reasonable thing to do particularly at this time. In any case, the choice before us is pretty limited: at an average cost of $8 per shot, we have neither the funds to ensure universal vaccination of our 200 million citizens nor the infrastructural wherewithal to take, preserve and deliver the new vaccines!

Unfortunately, if I understand how things work in these parts, that quest would remain a tall order. Not with the ingrained psychology in which public policy is decidedly skewed in favour of procurement; certainly not with a leadership class known to be hostage to foreign interests. In the end, all that would be required for the noble endeavor to be thrown through the window is for one third-rate, no-good bureaucrat-agent of the Big-Pharma to render a one-line unfavourable opinion for the efforts of these acclaimed scholars to come to naught!

Isn’t that what makes us what we are? By the way, when shall be begin to celebrate our homegrown initiatives?

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