The Federal Government has allocated N5.84 billion in the 2021 budget to key agencies saddled with pharmaceutical research and vaccines development, in spite of the global rush for home-grown vaccines, Daily Trust findings show.
The agencies are the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba, National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRID) and the National Arbovirus and Vectors Research Centre (NAVRC), Enugu.
NIMR Yaba is highest of the three with N4.23 billion budgeted for the year.
NIPRID’s allocation for the year stands at N1.28 billion.
NAVRC has the lowest provision of N329.48 million.
This comes at a time of increasing pressure on the Federal Government to fast track the production of COVID-19 vaccines at home, to stem the ravaging spread of the virus.
The government last month said it would need N400 billion to vaccinate 70 per cent of Nigerians between now and 2022.
Other countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Mauritius and Botswana have joined the rest of the world in developing their own vaccines.
Director General of the Budget Office of the Federation, Ben Akabueze, on Monday announced that the government would provide free vaccines to 103 million Nigerians as provided for in the 2021 budget.
Supplementary budget proposal
Finance Minister, Zainab Ahmed, said the Federal Government was working on a supplementary budget proposal to accommodate purchase of additional vaccine doses from pharmaceutical firms abroad.
The two top officials spoke during a virtual briefing on the 2021 budget signed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Latest official figures show that Nigeria recorded 101,331 cases of the virus, with 1,361 deaths.
Medical experts, however, say the figure would have been higher if there was capacity to test more people.
Some experts and pharmacists told Daily Trust that more lives would be saved if Nigeria joined other countries that used the talents of their experts and produced the vaccines.
But medical doctors and some researchers said it would be difficult for Nigeria to beat the time considering the speed at which the second wave of the coronavirus is ravaging the world, adding that importing the vaccines at whatever cost remained the only option.
Scientists in some universities interviewed by our reporters said they were conducting researches on COVID-19 vaccines but that producing them was not within their mandates.
The experts said poor funding for research in the health sector by successive governments over the years would make it difficult to produce vaccines, which were capital intensive and required a lengthy research period.
They said Nigeria also lacked infrastructure including laboratories and equipment, manpower as well as technology to produce modern vaccines for viruses like COVID-19.
A pointer to the funding challenge is the appropriation to the three key research institutes in the 2021 budget.
In 2021, NAVRC gets N118.28 million for personnel expenditure, N9.65 million for overhead expenditure and N201.56 million for capital expenditure while NIPRID is allocated N748.30 million for personnel expenditure, N124.84 million for overhead expenditure and N407.67 million for capital expenditure.
The NIMR, on the other hand, gets N883.92 million for personnel cost, N32.24 million for overhead expenditure and N3.31 billion for capital expenditure.
Dr Casmir Ifeanyi, a public health expert, says Nigeria stands to benefit a lot from the local production of COVID-19 vaccines given the infectious nature of the disease.
He said a COVID-19 vaccine made from the local variant or a strain of the virus in the country would produce a better result and also save the country a lot of foreign exchange.
“We are dealing with infective agents that have the capacity to mutate,” he said.
“It is already established that Nigeria has its own variant of the virus. So, in vaccine production, you incorporate the agent into the vaccine and the more local the variant or strain used in the vaccine production, the more immunogenic (ability to produce an immune response) the vaccine would be,” he said.
Dr Aminu Ibrahim said Nigeria must join the league of countries including some from the third world that have made progress in producing COVID-19 vaccines in line with their peculiarities.
Countries that made progress
Daily Trust reports that an Associate Professor of Medicine, Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, who is a Nigerian-born United States-based medical doctor, is currently leading the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in America.
Other countries that have produced the vaccines and put them to use, approved them for use or approved but have not yet put them to use are Canada, Germany, China, France, Britain, and Ireland.
Others are Australia, Austria, South Korea, Northern Ireland, India, Taiwan and Russia.
Other countries in different stages of producing vaccines and which were listed are Argentina, Andorra, Armenia, Botswana, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Japan and Singapore.
Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, North Macedonia and Norway, Palau, Portugal, Qatar, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, South Africa (Biovac Institute), Switzerland, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Venezuela are also on the list.
‘Nigeria’s capacity in doubt’
President of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Prof. Innocent Ujah, says Nigeria is not ready for local production of COVID-19 vaccines because it does not have the requisite capacity.
According to him, some federal institutions have the mandate of producing vaccines.
These include the NIMR, NIPRID, National Arbovirus Institute, and NAVRC, among others.
He, however, said he was not aware of any proposals from them to carry out COVID-19 vaccines clinical trials or collaborating with other countries.
Prof. Ujah said, “We are not ready because one vital component of the response is the research component and the preparation to validate the vaccine through clinical trials.
“Vaccine production requires a lot of money and a lot of capacity building for experts and scientists.
“You must also have a clinical trial research site.
“I am not sure if Nigeria has any of these; so you don’t just wake up and say you want to start the production of vaccines.
“I don’t think there is anything on the ground that will enable us to produce vaccines. All we can do is to collaborate with other countries and other research centres to do it,” he said.
‘No enabling environment’
Chairman, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), Abuja branch, Pharmacist Jelili Kilani, said Nigeria could not produce COVID-19 vaccines because there was no enabling environment and adequate facilities to do so.
Kilani said they had raised the alarm over the improper funding of research institutions on several occasions.
According to him, drug production in the country is at the infant stage and most pharmaceutical drugs and raw materials for the ones produced are being imported.
“Production of any vaccines or drug takes like 10 to 15 years, but all the phases were crashed to within nine months for COVID-19 because it is not a disease that waits for anyone.
“So, we that have not been able to produce drugs within 10 years, how can we produce any within one year?” he asked.
When contacted, the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Prof. Babatunde L. Salako, simply said, “We are making efforts and we need government’s support with dedicated funding to make it a success.”
The Director-General of NIPRID, Dr Obi Adigwe, did not respond to calls and messages sent to him up to the time of filing this story.
However, sources said that the agency was not in the process of producing COVID-19 vaccines locally.
Instead, the institute had made efforts towards conventional and alternative medicines that boost immunity against COVID-19 and hand sanitisers since the onset of the pandemic in the country.
Daily Trust reports that it was NIPRID that analysed the Madagascar herb, which it said did not show any evidence of curing COVID-19.
Some officials in the institute who spoke in confidence lamented poor funding over the years, saying it hampered research and production of pharmaceutical products.
The Director-General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Prof. Moji Adeyeye, said in a statement that they did not manufacture vaccines but were working towards attaining global benchmark to enable pharmaceutical companies to produce them in the country.
“The ultimate goal is to achieve Maturity Level 4, which will make pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria attain WHO prequalification.
“NAFDAC does not manufacture vaccines; it is NAFDAC‘s maturity that can lead to the country’s qualified manufacturers to manufacture vaccines,” the statement said
Vaccine production in Nigeria
Nigeria commenced local production of vaccines in 1940 at the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory, Yaba, Lagos, which was established majorly for the production of anti-rabies, smallpox and yellow fever vaccines for local consumption and export. The vaccines were used in 1986 to mitigate the yellow fever outbreak.
However, in 1991, the vaccine production plant was shut down for renovation and upgrading but production did not resume there for several years with sources citing lack of funds, conflicting interests and other challenges.
The Federal Executive Council (FEC) had in 2017 approved a joint venture agreement between the federal government and May and Baker to produce vaccines in Nigeria from 2017-2021, but findings from sources showed that not much has been achieved.
A long way to go
Prof. Oyewale Tomori, a renowned virologist and the immediate past president of the Nigeria Academy of Sciences, said Nigeria had a long way to go in producing COVID-19 vaccines at a time other countries made serious breakthroughs.
Prof. Tomori said researchers in the country were suffering from years of neglect and disdain for science, research and technology, adding that the abandonment had slowed national development and progress.
“It is a minus for us that while India, China, Iran and many others, probably even some African countries are doing their vaccines, we are waiting for some donors to send to us,” he said.
Also, a Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the Lagos State University College of Medicine (LASUCOM), Prof. Omoniyi Kayode Yemitan, said that there was little Nigeria could do now in terms of vaccine production because COVID-19 was a pandemic and an emergency.
While advising the Nigerian government to prepare for the future in case of any eventuality, he said Nigeria’s health sector was suffering because of lip service relevant authorities.
“It should be easy to learn from COVID-19 to develop our health system because it affects everyone irrespective of age, class and status,” he said.
Dr Sabo Ahmed Muhammed, a medical doctor and senior lecturer with the Department of Human Physiology, College of Health Sciences, University of Jos, said there was no formal attempt to develop the COVID-19 vaccine because factors were militating against such efforts in Nigeria.
He said COVID-19 is an RNA (ribonucleic acid) virus, like HIV, Hepatitis C, Ebola and Lassa fever that can easily change its face or mutate and develop resistance, and whatever is formed against it could easily be changed and would no longer recognise it.
“It is the pharmaceutical companies that have lots of money to invest and expect profit from it not us in the university.
“By the way, there are fears that no medical laboratory scientist wants to handle the COVID-19 virus in the laboratory because whenever you are handling a virus or dangerous material, you are expected to have an air-tight laboratory which is not easy in Nigeria.
“So, the protocols are very expensive. How much does Nigeria have to fund this?”
Also, a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Isaac Adeyemi Adeleye, said that Nigeria was not advanced enough technologically to produce high-tech vaccines like the mRNA for COVID-19.
“So, the government has no choice than to look for N400 billion to import ready-made vaccines used in advanced countries and until we can build the capacity, both human and infrastructural to develop a proper vaccine industry, I guess, we might keep importing vaccines,” he said.
‘ABU working on cure not vaccines’
According to the Head of the Department of Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Prof. Aminu Musa, one of the mandates of universities the world over is to conduct researches.
He said there was a difference between vaccine production and the researches that led to the production of the vaccines.
According to him, the work of the universities is to conduct researches.
“One of the vaccines that recently got approval in the United Kingdom, Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine, is a product of collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca Pharmaceutical Company.
“Therefore, ABU and any other university in Nigeria is not a production but a research centre.
“Many types of research are going on in Nigeria in terms of vaccines and therapeutics.
“In ABU, most of our researches are geared towards the production of therapeutics (drugs) not vaccines. However, other universities are looking at the area of vaccines,” he said.
He said the first African scientist to identify the genetic sequence of the COVID-19 virus is a Nigerian, Prof. Christian Happi, who is the Director of the African Centre of Excellence for Infectious Diseases of the Redeemers University, Osun State, adding that his research on vaccine production had reached an advanced stage.