‘With Appropriate Funding, Nigeria Can Produce a Medical Nobel Laureate’

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 With over 100 publications to his credit, the newly appointed Director General, Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Professor Babatunde Salako, is indeed an erudite scholar. He speaks to select journalists on the challenges of his new office and the opportunities he and others hope to put the country on the global medical map. Zacheaus Somorin brings excerpts

What is it like since you came on board as the DG of NIMR?
It has been very challenging. The first thing we did was to take briefs from different parts of the institute, starting from the administration to the division, the research, groups, the laboratory (including the works, accounts, internal audit and the residential areas). I actually went through to visit all these parts of the institute and we took brief on the state of things from there. Their challenges and what they themselves think is the way forward and what we have found generally is that it is an old institute which had been established since about 1920 but has grown from strength to strength to where it is right now.

The peculiar thing is that successive government really to me has not understood the purpose of that place which is an institute that should be in the forefront of national development via research. Coming up with innovations that can accept government policy or that can improve existing policy or new policy formation and beyond that it should be. It is also an institute that can come up with newer models of diseases or provide a new public health approach to fighting some of the common public health diseases.

Why has it not been able to do that?
The reason purely is that the place has been poorly funded like any other government agency because one must be quick to say that yes government can’t do everything but we believe that the institute is in a good stead to be able to carry out its mandate and that it should come with enough adequate staff especially in the area of research equipments which have been obsolete, the building, laboratories, although they are still functioning in a way, they are much less than required. Some of these areas are needed to be propped up and supported much more than we have currently.

The major part is that there are no reasonable funds dedicated to solving major public health problems in Nigeria. Ideally, the institute should be in a position to call for a research proposal based on challenges that we have in our health sector that the country requires the solution to.

For example, the issue of Lassa fever cases which have been recorded over the years and polio which we are trying to kick out of Nigeria and non communicable diseases like hypertension and diabetes and their complications and more importantly the issues of infectious diseases. These areas need to be properly funded for the institute to come up with solutions to some of these complex issues and in advanced countries, this is what their own government have understood over the years, their national development can only come from funding research because research is actually to look into the future or the present and accessing the past and coming up with predictions of the future and therefore they have the ability to be able to predict and then prevent diseases that may occur in future but what we have currently is that we have not paid attention to that and we still use fire brigade approach to issues, so our challenge includes the fact that we don’t have adequate funding and equipment which government nearly should put in place.

While knowing the fact that government cannot do everything, we are also looking at the possibility of engaging the private sector because the private sector also has a lot to do in funding research but we must first make them understand the need to do this. Even in their own smaller enclave they need research to advance to make progress and if they are doing that on their own they should also contribute to research of national importance by providing fund for this. So one of our future aims is to bring the private sector together, put them on board, let them know the need to fund research and see how they can contribute funds to assist the government in achieving a common goal of national development.

Research alone without actual utilisation will just not be useful. Do you have a set of research works that has been completed by the institute but have not been taken on board at the national level?
Well, there are quite a number of researches that were designated as a national research but unfortunately were not completely funded because the institute was being treated like any other ministry’s agencies and so they also get funding per quarter and cannot plan based on that and sometimes we have a budget but the funding does not come. So it gets to a point that the research cannot go on but the ones that are within a state that the individual can also get some funds from those states we have been doing and the result of these have been given to those states and I believe the states have really made use of those results.

During the Ebola outbreak, one would have expected that an institute like this would be in the forefront, but instead we had another institute of government running this show?
The Centre for Disease Control should also be in the forefront, ours is to conduct research on for example, behaviour of the virus, the possible treatment and approach in terms of prevention strategy – and that cannot be done during the outbreak. That is something we needed to have done but we also have what we call an emergency preparedness unit which worked with the Lagos State government at that time to control the situation. But what we should be doing at that point was to be able to diagnose patients, to culture their virus and begin to study the molecular basis for some of the virus’ behaviour and prepare for future occurrence and more importantly how to prevent future occurrence.

We can also take part in disease surveillance which means we cannot monitor the movement of the virus in and outside Nigeria from various parts of entry we should therefore have a laboratory that is standard enough to be able to do this kind of job. That is basically what we should be doing as we have no case now, our institute should be involved in research on how to ensure that the disease is wiped out within our own country and of course West African sub region and this can only be done if we have enough funds for people to come up with research questions that can find solution to this type of problem. What we have now is that we don’t have any fund so even when we have ideas, our ideas are just in our minds and we also have tried to collaborate with other institutions in these areas but as I speak we have a few international grant in the institute when we expand our net so to speak and make more collaboration with the university’s within Nigeria and other similar institute in and around Africa, we will be in a position to work with these institutes and the answer…

What are the new things you are bringing on board?
We want the institute to be known widely within and outside the country. We want to internationalise the institute and the way to do that is to begin from home, we have a crop of researchers scattered all over Nigerian universities who have international exposure, but have nothing to do with the institute that everybody will go and as such work, plan or collaborate with to answer Nigerian research agenda and health challenges.

We believe we can do this in a national retreat that we plan to host between 1st and 2nd of December, where we will bring in these international scientists to rob minds with the in house scientists and possibly form a network with them, put grants together and seek funds from within if we eventually get fund for research and from other similar agencies outside Nigeria that can give research fund. We intend to bring in people from the private sector who ideally should be the end users of these research products, that has not been widely practised in Nigeria.

Is there a political way to actualise these dreams? Are you thinking alone or you are thinking in concert with the government. Do you think this government, given recession and the present state of the economy, will give its support?
Well, I will assume that government is serious about the change that they profess and that I believe will be the impetus to assist them in listening to us, because if you appoint some people to go and head a place, you necessarily will want them to make progress, so based on that we believe if we approach the government and let them also see why they need to fund the institute, support the institute to move on from where we are now because there are much more benefit in future. You don’t often get research result immediately, it has to be carried out over some period of time but before then money has to be spent judiciously too and we hope to be able to do that. Why we are not relying on government alone, if they do their best we are also hoping to put a lot of energy into bringing in the private sector because we believe that they can actually drive it.

Zika virus is an emerging global health challenge. Is your institute in a position to initiate researches to towards tackling his, and thereby possibly producing a noble laureate from your institute?
Yes, the ambition is also for us to put the institute in the world map of science and I believe all we need to do to get it right is to start from funding the place appropriately, providing support from various partners. I am a very incurable optimist, so I believe we have had one noble laureate from literature so we also have an opportunity of having one from science. We have to see how to work round it, otherwise if we just believe that everything is impossible, we may not be able to make progress. As far as the Zika virus is concerned, I am aware that already the ministry is asking the five big health agencies to come together to provide something as a risk assessment of Zika virus in Nigeria and possibly make recommendations to the government.

Let us first see whether the virus exists and then define their movement and the areas where they are confined to and begin to see how active the viruses are and also look at which vector mosquito carries it, because we have plenty of mosquitoes in Nigeria. So we have to be sure which of the vectors we have that is transmitting the disease and we can from there begin to talk about vector control and also the virus behaviour, the presentation, the treatment, it has been associated with deformity of the head in Brazil well much of an association some people believe there is no cause and effect yet but for us we should make hay while the sun shines and so once we know where the viruses are and we can define the vectors we can begin to plan eradication of the vector and by extension of the virus so that we don’t allow the virus to spread within Nigeria so very soon an sure those agency will put together the risk assessment and then they will be able to tell the nation whether we are at risk or not at risk.

There is this perception that we don’t lack personnel, we just lack the people that could deliver. What is your take on this?
Well, it is a true statement because we don’t have the right people to do it. I believe that this government is making a lot of effort to get the right people in position. I know that if you have the right people in position, it will not just be a matter of coming up with ideas, they will also implement. These days we talk more about implementation of science such that it is a catching phrase now in science world and most researchers who find themselves in position realises the fact that we don’t lack ideas, its implementation that is the issue.

With the economic situation, do you think we can get adequate funding for research?
Well, I think even in our situation, one can answer it with research even though that may not be medical research, it can be economical research, if we have people who since this recession started have been commissioned to say look go and sit together and proffer solution to this. How did we get there? How can we get out? I am sure they will come up with something that government can then implement and watch that over the next few months and see what changes. So if we don’t do research we will just remain the same and be using the same old solutions for a new problem and it will not work so whenever position we find ourselves the best thing is to fund research. It is just that we must be right and accurate in what research should be funded at a particular time.