Professor Oyewale Tomori is one of Nigeria’s most versatile Virologists, a former Vice Chancellor of the Redeemer University and a vocal voice among African scientists. In this interview, he makes clear his case for the promotion of the non pharmaceutical interventions to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scientists say a pandemic is always expected at the turn of every Century, is this accidental or coincidental?
We can control the occurrence of epidemics if we change our behaviour and address the way we do things; we can actually control the frequency of epidemics. There is this concept called – One Health Concept, which looks at the human being, the animals and their relationship with the environment, that makes the epidemic to occur. As long as there is an increased interaction between animals and man, the occurrence of epidemic will continue. Every growing plants and animal have their own peculiar viruses and pathogens, which they somehow sort themselves out by nature but when we humans invade their territories, we expose ourselves to their viruses.
Man and animal are closely related therefore there is a possibility of the transference of diseases from animal to man, take Yellow Fever for example, it is the diseases of Monkeys, it is when human invade the jungle as hunters or farmers, vectors like mosquitoes’ that can cause a transfer of the viruses or diseases from animal introduce the viruses to the human population. The domestic animals too have their own contribution in all the spread of diseases. Human transportation too can cause a lot of movement of epidemic from one region of the world to another.
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In the One Health Concept, the human is not alone, it include the animal, plants and the environment generally, the way we interact with the animals lead to exposure to the pathogens of the animal which is new to the human population, making it spread so widely. We are going to be having more of these as we continue to interact with our environment. As transportation and contact with human being is improved, we will continue to have such epidemics.
Only about one percent of the global COVID 19 Vaccine distribution is in Africa, what is the science community in Africa doing to reduce Vaccine dependency on the West?
Let me say that Africa is responsible for its own state of affairs; it is not the fault of the Western Nations or any other group of people. The talents are there in Africa, it is just that the environment for the talents to function is not there and that is because of politics. It is the failure of scientists to get involved in the politics, am not saying, scientists should carry placards but to get involved in the discussion of how to make our society better, scientists must continuously get engaged in broader conversations on how to improve our society, the leaders themselves get the brunt of all the failures. Nigeria is involved in production of Vaccines, the animal Vaccines produced from the National Veterinary Institute, VOM, in Jos, since 1924 and they are still producing, also on the human side, Nigeria started production of Vaccines but politics destroyed all of these. So the human capacity is there but the lack of creating the enabling environment and policies is a problem that has to be addressed.
What do you mean by politics destroying the Vaccine Initiatives in Nigeria?
I mean that there are certain things that need to be in place for Vaccines production to be scaled up, for instance the enabling environment, issue of consistent policies. There is no way you can talk about doing good research without regular electricity and water supplies. There are basic things other countries do to ensure that their scientists keep working. Again, the issues of importation of equipments for research, if we are serious about research, the politicians will remove duties on material coming in for scientific research. No single country can produce everything it needs. But we should produce something, we talk about producing the Vaccines in Africa, lets even talk about producing the containers for storing the Vaccines, that is petrochemical not Vaccines, so there are so many aspect s of production that we can engage in Africa. Even take the issues of Syringe, we are depending on the West, so as scientists we need to gather together to have a conversation with the government on how to organize ourselves to respond to some of these things.
In some other African countries, there are issues of policy inconsistencies; there is no sustainability so Africa’s current position is the fault of the political leadership. But now, the COVID pandemic presents an opportunity to forge ahead and learn from our mistakes, make corrections and move forward.
What is it with the complaint about hoarding Vaccines?
Vaccines are not hoarded; let’s be frank, at the time they were buying those Vaccines no one knew which one will work, it was all Vaccines in trial at the time, so they were buying all options, it was sensible thing to do, countries were being smart and proactive, they were investing in all the Vaccine options not waiting for the completion of the entire trial before making purchases, that is not hoarding, that is being smart, it is being proactive, it is simply a matter of economics. On the part of Africa, we were waiting until they produce and then donate to us, that is one area we have failed in Africa.
Africa would have done better if it pulled its resources together to make a uniform bargain not the individualistic approach it is now engaging with the Manufacturing companies. What the governments of Africa need to do is to pull resources together and directly negotiate with the Manufacturers, this will cut out the cost of the middleman. Africa must internally examine itself.
What about the discussion for COVID 19 Vaccine production sites in Africa?
The issue is not about establishing Vaccine production sites across Africa. I think what must concern us the more is the sustainability of such ventures, what happens to those sites if COVID 19 is eradicated? If COVID 19 disappears, what happens to the Vaccine centres? More importantly, we should have a broader look at how to establish a centre that will cater for other disease challenge such as Measles, Cholera, Yellow Fever and other diseases; we should also focus on broader health issues affecting Africans. As far back as 5 years ago African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative, AVMI, that was the plan of Africa to develop a system where we have regional production of Vaccines. African scientists should go back to the AVMI plan, which is one way we can produce sufficient Vaccines for the citizens.
You have spoken so much about how politics and policies are affecting the COVID 19 situation as well as Africa’s health system, but on a broader note, we have scientists too as appointees of the government, why is change not coming from the scientists in the political circle?
It is a combination of so many things, Yes! Scientists are appointed into position of authourities, but you need to have the true conviction of a true scientist. The important thing is for scientists to learn the political messaging, we must learn how to negotiate with politicians and speak to them on how promotion of science can improve GDP, as scientists we must articulate the gains of science in general development and find a way to communicate this with politicians.
Government is also looking for tax and money, science does not give you money immediately, you have to invest in research for a long time before you can get anything out of it. What the government is seeking for is return on investment, as scientists we must tell politicians that just one epidemic can wipe out that entire investment of a country in a second, and that is our strong point, it is a healthy nation that makes the economy boom, all of the returns that come from Oil, Agriculture, Export and all of that will be wiped out with one epidemic.
So this is our line of argument as scientists which we are not making the political class understand; see what happens to us during COVID lockdown the entire country loses revenue, see how the GDP dropped during the lockdown. That is the strong point, we the scientists need to communicate with politicians; a healthy nation is what makes a country boom. Africa’s response to COVID 19 is like making ammunition at the war front. We need to have a new rethinking; we need to think freely in order to move Africa forward in terms of COVID 19 research Vaccination and all other responses to disease outbreak, health emergencies and other health challenges confronting our society today.
Are you engaged in any alliances or coalition of African scientists involved in COVID 19 Vaccine production in order to ensure African own Vaccines so we can have sufficiency and cut dependency on the West?
Yes, there are all sorts of initiatives, such as African Centre for Disease Control, The European Union and the African Union, it is good but my opinion is that it is a temporary response; we need to be considering a more sustainable approach to make sure that Africa is able to build strong structures that will outlive COVID 19. While we appreciate the support of the West, we should also look inward to create solutions to our problems. At the local level, Nigeria is making attempts to revive the production of human Vaccines but along the way, you have hitches from people of interests, that is why I said as scientists we need to advance our messaging to communicate with the politicians as well as the public in such as way that will make them appreciate the relevance of our work.
You said the bulk of the problem is the lack of political will, are you now saying scientists should get involved in politics?
Not necessarily, what I mean is that scientists should understand the power of negotiating and understanding the thinking of the politicians and getting your language of science to the point where the politicians understand what is in it for the country and the public. The question, what is in it for me? Is a very legitimate question, it has just been misunderstood. For instance, how do you explain what is in it for the country’s GDP if Vaccines is produced locally? These are the points where science communication should meet the politics. These are the kind of messages scientists should be engaging with politicians. Scientists should communicate in a way that makes the politicians understand what is in it for the country, we must learn the political language and lace our conversation with the political class so that they can make the necessary investment and create an enabling environment for science to thrive.
The same challenge of political will seem to cut across the entire African region, is there a way that African scientists are building stronger messaging to help them communicate to the point of making politicians understand.
There are key players in helping to convey the thoughts of the scientists in a way that the politicians are properly attuned. For instance what you are doing now is a very potent tool which we are not yet using very effectively, the scientist must be in a position to explain the message to the point of making people recognize their relevance, the scientists must communicate their relevance to the environment, to economics and all other areas. The only way to do that is to get the message to the various communities, how does my research add life to the man on the street? How does my research improve the GDP? Those are the kind of conversations that scientists must begin to engage, we must engage in communication which tells our relevance in a language that the communities understand. We need to use our research to build relevance, we must use our research to answer the question- What is in it for me- once we can answer that question, and then we can engage effective communication to make the public understand.
Are we ever going to have an end to COVID 19 variances, can you explain in lay man’s language how the variance can affect Vaccination
The Pathogens remains immobile, it remains so until human carries it from one point to another, so that is the main issues driving up the variance. If we stop it in its track by wearing our mask, washing our hands, avoiding public places, maintaining social distances, there will be no mutation, so the most important part of control is adhering to those non pharmaceutical interventions. Vaccines came in because we have failed to use those interventions to stop the virus on its track and if we still continue to fail to adhere to the non pharmaceutical procedures, we will continue to have variances that will override the Vaccines we are producing. So it is back to basics, we need to go back to insisting on the non pharmaceutical, as long as we are attending big gathering, not using mask, not washing hands, we will continue to have different variance. One other error that we make in Nigeria is that we assume that it is the government that is controlling epidemic, it is not the government that is controlling epidemic, it is the people. So long as we abide by the non pharmaceutical intervention we can control this epidemic, the countries that have succeeded are countries which were strict about enforcing the non pharmaceutical interventions, so that is what we need to do.
Why is it that those who get vaccinated still get infected?
We have ascribed to the Vaccine what it is not supposed to do, Vaccines are not designed to prevent to exposure, you are the one to prevent your exposure, if you cannot prevent your exposure it means you can still get infected. The Vaccine still will not stop you from getting infected, however, if you have the Vaccine and you have developed immunity, that infection will not become disease, that infection will not progress to hospitalization, that infection will not progress to death that is what the Vaccine does. And it is not the day you get your Vaccine that you develop immunity, it takes 10 days to 2 weeks. So if in that period before you get to the stage of immunity, you get infected you can still get disease but the Vaccines will prevent severity. There are many reasons too, someone can be vaccinated and not yet get immunity, it is the immunity that prevents disease. What is important is successful vaccination, that is vaccination that leads to the development of immunity, but it is not all vaccination that leads to immunity.
What is your message to the Science community and well as the politicians?
The message is that we have the talents, we have the human resources, and I think we have the resources to make Africa free from Vaccine dependency, African leaders need to create the enabling environment to function, good electricity, enough reagents, funding for research which is not diverted to other things, we need to improve on the level of accountability and transparency in every aspect.