Nigeria’s research system in a Covid-19 era
As the scientific race towards finding a cure for Covid-19 intensifies, institutions, nations and organisations are standing up to be counted. In Nigeria however, research activities have remained uninspiring and lacking in national coordination. Predictably, the system in its usual languor may fail to address the needs of Nigerians, despite resources deployed to fund it. Compared with its African peers, the country is already playing catch-up. Godfrey AKON reports.
A scramble for medical solutions dominated national efforts across the world since the deadly covid-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, WHO, in March 2020. As the disease spread and the death toll mounted, scientists and medical experts rallied to find a common cure, resulting in clinical trials of drugs and vaccines.
While the world still awaits a proven, knockout cure, some nations are clearly ahead with testing capabilities and trying the lot in their kitty to find treatment, and save their citizens. The likes of US, UK, France, China, and many more have trialled drugs and vaccines with varying degrees of success.
An American biopharmaceutical company, Gilead Sciences Inc, headquartered in Foster City, California, successfully trialled Remdesivir which has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, FDA, for treatment of covid-19.
Chinese researchers are also in mid-stages of trialling Favipiravir, an anti-flu drug sold by Fujifilm Holding under the name Avigan. Sanofi and GSK are in preclinical stage of developing a vaccine by the end of 2021, while Pfizer along with German drug maker, BioNTech, are already at the clinical stage of a vaccine named BNT162 which could be available to millions at the end of 2020.
One of several clinical trials in the UK was conducted by the University of Birmingham. The Catalyst trial to test a series of new drugs, including those already in use for patients with cancer and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, was successfully carried out.
"Catalyst is a team effort, designed by the Inflammation- Advanced and Cell Therapy Trials Team (I-ACT) at the University of Birmingham Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit, working in close partnership with University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) and the Birmingham National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR BRC) to run the trial. It will be delivered in close collaboration with the Oxford and University College London NIHR BRC's," the university said.
Meanwhile, Oxford University also began phase 1 human trials of its vaccine, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, on April 23 with the aim of producing one million doses by September with £20 million funding from the British Health Ministry.
While most of the entities leading efforts to find the cure for covid-19 are in developed nations, in Africa, Madagascar has discovered Covid-Organic, a herbal remedy for the treatment of the disease. Although the WHO has urged the country to scientifically test its solution for coronavirus, as it is yet to do so, the country has commenced shipment of the herbal remedy to other African nations, including Nigeria.
Since Nigeria recorded its index covid-19 case on February 27, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, has been focused on detecting, testing and controlling the spread, obvious responses within its mandate; while researching and finding a cure has remained in limbo. The country’s universities and medical research institutions have remained quiet with no statement on efforts towards finding a cure.
One of Nigeria’s most neglected, the traditional medicine industry, has been more vocal with unproven claims of a cure, while government has however failed to subject such claims to clinical investigation and testing. A major factor holding back efforts in that direction is overdependence on western medical solutions, an issue that is gradually killing performance in domestic medical research.
Contrary to the brave response coordinated against the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when Redeemer’s University, Ede, developed testing kits for the virus and itched a heroic flip against the outbreak, the country’s universities have mostly watched the Covid-19 pandemic from the side-lines with no significant shot at it.
Arguably, some of the challenges confronting research and development in the country are factored on the failure of policies, funding and the system itself which has historically remained unable to address the nation's problems. Recently the government revived efforts to reposition research and realign it with observed realities and needs of the society within the context of the country's vested obligations such as providing health, security and education for all of its population.
On the question of funding research, the government, through the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, TETFund, provided a National Research Fund, NRF, worth N5 billion, pursuant to the TETFund Act 2011 for the resuscitation of research activities in Nigeria’s public universities, polytechnics and colleges of education.
The research fund is also aimed at addressing the critical needs of the nation's developmental aspirations. All lecturers in public tertiary institutions in Nigeria are eligible to benefit from the fund as well as multi-disciplinary researchers from various disciplines.
The scheme provides funding for areas of research such as health and social welfare agriculture, food security and food technology/ processing, transport, energy and power, ICT and telecommunications, engineering; construction and building technology, space science, among others.
Similarly, the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, recently announced that it will fund research for the covid-19 vaccine in the country.
CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele said, “In order to encourage greater research and development in Nigeria of drugs and vaccines that would help prevent the spread of the virus, the CBN is developing a framework under which grants and long term facilities will be provided to researchers, science institutions and biotechnology firms to develop the Nigerian vaccine.
“Needless to state that if we are to wait for foreign countries to develop their own vaccines, we will be the last in the queue to receive curative remedies for our teeming population.
“The Central Bank of Nigeria today challenges Nigerian scientists at home and in the diaspora to go back to their laboratories and develop a Nigerian vaccine. Once validated by the health authorities, the CBN will step in and do the needful for the sake of over 200 million Nigerians now confronted by COVID-19.”
While Nigeria still grapples with escalating covid-19 infections towering at 5445 as at last Saturday, and a rising death toll of 171 persons, Nigerians await to see a decision by medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies operating in the country to take the challenge thrown at them by the CBN to produce a vaccine for all Nigerians.
Nigerian researchers have however demonstrated capacity in many ways as recently a team of 13 intellectuals comprising 9 members from Faculty of Engineering and 5 medical experts in Bayero University, Kano, produced a prototype ventilator as part of the university’s effort to fight the deadly covid-19 pandemic.
However, the ventilator developed was based on the design developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, in the United States, to provide emergency ventilation in the absence of conventional ventilators during the Covid-19 pandemic. Similar efforts have been replicated by a few other institutions in the country but none has attempted a vaccine production at the moment.
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