It is ironical if not ridiculous that when the serious scientific people of the world started the race for the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, Nigeria to the best of our knowledge did not join the race, but now wants to start a local production of the vaccines developed by others. By the way, it was not a bad decision that Nigeria did not enter the race for a vaccine, for after all, it does not make sense to enter a race one would certainly be among the losers at the end. This is because the countries that embarked on the race for a vaccine deployed their ‘Ben-Johnsons’ (excellent scientific talents supported by enabling environment) into the race, and in less than a year, the ‘first three finishers’ emerged to the delight of the anxiously waiting world. The first to be announced was Pfizer-BoiNTech with a 95% efficacy; then followed by Moderna with a 94.5% efficacy; and the third was Oxford- AstraZeneca with 62-90% efficacy depending on dosage (The New York Times via https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/health/how-covid-19-vaccines-work.html). Apart from these three top vaccine discoverers, Russia and China in non-transparent manners, announced the development l of vaccines even much earlier.
The three top vaccines are presently in use in different parts of the world including the United States of America (USA), Europe, India, Israel, Mexico, just to name a few. It is important to note that as at January 2021 “researchers are testing 62 coronavirus vaccines in clinical trials on humans”, according to The New York Times (as updated last on 21 January 2021).
But right now, the attention of the entire world is focused on how to procure and distribute the already discovered vaccines. The Nigerian government is not left out in this scramble to acquire and distribute the already discovered vaccines. The government has announced that it is proposing to spend Four Hundred Billion Naira (N400 billion) to procure vaccines.
The government is also hoping to secure some vaccines through GAVI (The Vaccine Alliance), as well as through the African Union initiative (African Vaccine Availability Task Team). The Minister of Health Dr. Osagie Ehanire even disclosed that Nigeria has expressed interest in 10 million doses of the viral vector vaccine, which could be supplied as from March 2021. Yet, in spite of all these, it is making money available for local production of a vaccine.
According to news report, at the national briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF COVID-19) held on Monday, 18 January 2021, the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire disclosed that the sum of N10 billion has been approved by the Federal Government to support local production of the COVID-19 vaccine. Giving further details, the minister said that the Federal Ministry of Finance has released N10 billion to support domestic vaccine production. While we are working to develop our own vaccines, Nigeria is exploring options for licensed production in collaboration with recognised institutions. We are also exploring the option of local production of the vaccines in-country and have had discussions with a producer (See https://sundiatapost.com/fg-releases-n10bn-to-support-local-production-of-covid-19-vaccine/).
One may wonder what has changed to warrant the government to suddenly decide to fund a local production of vaccine. Why should Nigeria now be talking about working to develop its own vaccines after the race is almost over? Why should Nigeria now be “exploring options for licensed production in collaboration with recognized institutions?” Why is Nigeria creating the impression that it is only good at consuming the intellectual ingenuity of other people? Are we saying that we are perpetually a knowledge consumer nation? Nigeria’s intellectual endowment is capable of discovering and producing any vaccine if the enabling environment is created. Nigerian scientists in the diaspora are among the celebrated brains that produced the vaccines and other COVID-19 drugs in use currently.
Let us be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong for the government to focus on local efforts towards producing a vaccine, but it is wrong to throw non-existent money around for such a planned licensed production of vaccines in collaboration with foreign recognised institutions. In this particular race for a COVID-19 vaccine, Nigeria was and is a non-starter and should accept this fact, as she was regrettably not in a good position to enter the vaccine race when it started last year. This was partly because its intellectual power house was in disarray as a result of prolonged strike, and also partly because many of its relevant research institutes were not well-funded to embark on such an expensive research project then and even now..
This leads us to the well-reasoned advice given by Bill Gates that “Nigeria does not need to spend too much on acquiring COVID-19 vaccines but should rather focus more on revitalising the weak and underfunded health sector especially the primary health care centre” and that “Nigeria should not divert the very limited money that it has for health into trying to pay a high price for COVID vaccines.’ (See https://sundiatapost.com/fixing-health-sector-important-than-buying-covid-19-vaccines-bill-gates-tells-fg/ ).
It is important to separate Bill Gates’ view from that of Kogi State governor. Yahaya Bello who, while discouraging the use of COVID-19 vaccines said that the “vaccines are meant to kill all us” (See Sahara Reporters, January, 2021 via http://saharareporters.com/2021/01/19/covid-19-vaccines-meant-kill-us-%E2%80%93-kogi-governor-yahaya-bello). Gates’ view is also different from that of the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar 111, who in what appears to be doubting tone, said that “we can’t force Nigerians to take COVOD-19 vaccine”, because “there are myths, people talk of conspiracy theories” (See Punch, Thursday, 28 January, 2021).
Make no mistake about it, Nigeria has all it takes to develop and produce a vaccine for a future disease if it puts its scientific house in order. But, Nigeria presently appears not to be serious when it comes to funding research undertakings. Were it not to be so, the signs would be there to see in the available research infrastructure and facilities in the universities. Nonetheless, the universities still have the required brains that can carry out any research if provided with the right environment. Yet, the self-serving interests of political and administrative leaders would not allow anything to work very well in Nigeria.
This brings us to the issue of politics of vaccine distribution. Nigeria’s worst disease is bad politics. There is too much bad politics in everything. Announcing its distribution plan for the COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria, the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, said that the rate of infection in each state was the criterion for allocating vaccines to the states. It consequently released the following distribution list of the COVID-19 vaccine: Kano State will receive 3,557; Lagos, 3,131; Katsina, 2,361; Kaduna, 2,074; Bauchi, 1,900; Oyo, 1,848; Rivers, 1,766; Jigawa, 1,712; Niger, 1,558; Ogun, 1,473; Sokoto, 1,468; Benue, 1,423; Borno, 1,416; Anambra, 1,379; Zamfara, 1,336; Delta, 1,306; Others are Kebbi, 1,268; Imo, 1,267; Ondo, 1,228; Akwa Ibom, 1,161.Adamawa, 1,129; Edo, 1,104; Plateau, 1,089; Enugu, 1,088; Osun, 1,032; Kogi, 1,030; Cross River, 1,023; Abia, 955; Gombe, 908; Yobe, 842; Ekiti, 830; Taraba, 830; Kwara, 815; Ebonyi, 747; Bayelsa, 589; FCT, 695; Nasarawa, 661 (See https://sundiatapost.com/how-the-covid-19-vaccines-will-be-distributed-to-states-in-nigeria-nphcda-reveals/).
This distribution list above shows that like in many things in Nigeria, politics has entered into vaccine distribution or else how can one accept that Kogi State which is practically not carrying out any testing will get 1,030, while the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, the second most badly affected ‘state’ will be allocated only 695. Again, Lagos state which has remained the epicentre of COVID-19 disease in Nigeria has only 3,131, while Kano State which ‘downgraded’ COVID-19 related deaths to mysterious deaths and is not testing enough like Lagos in spite of many laboratories that were set-up there, is getting as high as 3557. What really informed the allocation? It should be realised that these presently authorised vaccines are for emergency use and not like in normal or routine immunisation situations. The criterion used for allocating the yet-to arrive vaccines appears not to be clear at all.
This column advocates that we should please do the right thing by throwing away bad politics out of the window in both the distribution of already discovered vaccines and in the plan for their local production. For sure, COVID-19 vaccines whether in national or international circles, have become a big and vexed question. And underlining the vexed nature of the question is the issue of distributional equity. The issue of fair distribution of vaccines to those who need them most (namely the frontline health workers, the aged, and other vulnerable groups serving humanity in this period of COVID-19 pandemic), as against the politically powerful and connected, the rich and other members of the privileged class, has become very controversial and vexatious. It should not be so.
•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC), Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.