For decades, many Nigerians had looked forward to government measures aimed at reducing the high incidence of death rates arising from the outbreak of various diseases. Now, there seems to be a glimmer of hope with the approval given by the federal government for the local production of vaccines by Bio Vaccines. Martins Ifijeh writes
When Nigeria experienced one of the deadliest Meningitis outbreak two months ago where over 500 persons unfortunately lost their lives, one of the constraints the federal government said it had was the inability to promptly take delivery of vaccines it ordered, because they were told it would take a certain number of weeks before it will be ready and delivered into the country, between which people were dying, while the outbreak was spreading.
The government also said even if it had envisaged there was going to be a Meningitis outbreak, there was no way it could have ordered for the vaccines beforehand because the procedure was that there has to be an outbreak before a nation can be qualified to make order for such vaccines even though it has to be paid for.
But with the recent ratification by President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Executive Council of a joint venture agreement between the federal government and May & Baker Nigeria Plc for local production of vaccines, through Bio Vaccines Limited, there seems to be a ray of hope for poor Nigerians who are often the most vulnerable to disease outbreaks in the country.
This ratification means May & Baker Plc in partnership with the federal government, will start local production of different lines of vaccines, which would be cheaper to purchase, and would be made available and accessible on demand to tackle most common disease outbreaks in the country.
While the news is laudable and represents one of the best things to have happened in the health sector since the commencement of the present administration, those in the know say it took three Nigerian presidents, five ministers, and 24 years for the promoters of the local vaccine production to arrive at the feat, which is a major victory for the common man who is vulnerable to outbreaks he has no capacity to prevent or treat.
Several decades ago the Nigerian Government was locally producing yellow fever and anti rabies vaccines in its facility in Yaba, but folded up the production in 1991 for inability to run it properly, which therefore gave room for May & Baker and other pharmaceutical companies to signify interest in supporting the government at the time in the production of vaccines through partnership arrangement.
In 2004 when these companies signified interest in reviving the Yaba facility and start production of vaccines, the Federal Government was said to have chosen May & Baker because of its capacity and history of working in partnership with the biggest vaccine production company in the world, Pasteur, as they were handling their vaccine activities in Nigeria.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who at the time signed a memorandum of understanding with the proposed vaccine production company, an agreement which predates the Public Procurement Act, then constituted a board to kick off production, which took more than another decade before ratification of the agreement finally scaled through by end of May this year.
The President, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Professor Mike Ogirima, who said the kick start of local production of vaccines was long overdue in the country explained that it was a laudable development that the present government of President Buhari has finally seen this through.
“It is a good arrangement that the federal government is thinking of reactivating local vaccine production through a public private partnership, which will be run by a yet to be established or already established company known as Bio Vaccines Nigeria Limited (BVNL) as a result of the partnership between the federal government and May & Baker Plc.”
Going down memory lane, he said he understands the discussion for the partnership has been on since 2004 when May & Baker and one other pharmaceutical company sent proposals to the federal government, but at the time May & Baker eventually won the bid, adding that since then a lot of documents have been signed towards the agreement.
“During the recent cerebrospinal meningitis outbreak in some parts of the North, NMA was in the forefront to see that the outbreak didn’t snowball and we kept wondering what happened to our local vaccine production. But now that the present Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole has dusted the file of this agreement that has been dormant in the ministry for years, we see it as a welcome development.”
“As at 1947 to 1991, you won’t believe Nigeria was exporting vaccines to other African countries. Now that this has been ratified and it is going to be run by Bio Vaccines Limited, we know it is a good news. Though we know it will cost a lot of money to kick start production because the equipments in the Yaba laboratory are obsolete,” he added.
He said with information available to him, the federal government will not be bringing in money into the joint venture, but the facilities it had on ground before has been assessed and evaluated, as that would be governments contribution or its counterpart funding to the agreement. May & Baker, he notes will then come with their own money since it is a joint venture.
He said the feat would not only provide job opportunities for Nigerians, but will help the country in earning foreign exchange, as Nigeria can once again start in the export of vaccines to other African countries and beyond.
THISDAY learnt that since the first agreement in 2004, May & Baker took over the Yaba facility, has been maintaining the facility, paying staff salaries, and managing research animals since then, pending when the agreement will be ratified for them to kick off production.
When THISDAY reached the Managing Director, May & Baker Plc, Nnamdi Okafor to get his thoughts on what the ratification means to Nigerians, he said the local production of vaccines has enormous benefits for a country and its people, adding that this was timely for Nigeria as it will help in reducing disease burdens and deaths occasioned by outbreaks.
“When the people are within reach of vaccines, outbreaks can be timely controlled. Also it will improve the quality of life and survival rate of its people. This ratification will mean vaccines will not only be produced here, it will be sustainable. It cannot be sustainable if we still depend on importation.”
He said in situations of emergency epidemic, countries depending on vaccines to be shipped to them often have to wait for a while because of the processes involved, and at which time people may have suffered from such outbreak.
“But with local production, you don’t have to wait for such approvals and long processes. In fact, the local manufacturing company will know that as a matter of responsibility they have to optimise the production of vaccines for the particular outbreak while temporarily shutting or slowing down productions of other lines of vaccines. If such companies refuse to produce the needed vaccines, the citizens can match to them and demand for vaccines,” he added.
He said same cannot be said of foreign manufacturers who are not under obligation to optimise production of a particular vaccine line because a certain country is experiencing outbreaks. “I will also say Nigeria spends a lot of money importing vaccines, which is in the range of four to six billion naira. But with local production, the country will not have to spend so much in the purchase of vaccines for its citizens.
“Nigeria pays six per cent to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on the value of vaccines bought. We also pay upfront for vaccines we can’t determine day of delivery. We looked at all these and decided this would not be best for our country.”
While stating that Nigeria will save a lot of money from local production, he said Bio Vaccines also intends to export vaccines based on need, adding that this will earn foreign exchange for Nigeria.
“This will also build capacity for Bio Vaccine workers as well as regulatory bodies like the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. “By the time NAFDAC and other regulatory bodies build capacity in monitoring highly sensitive operations in vaccine production, they may end up being regional experts in that area. So this will bring a lot of benefits to Nigerians,” he added.
While appreciating the Presidency and the Minister of Health for listening to the yearnings of Nigerians in reducing mortality rate through facilitating the process for the ratification of the agreement, he said May & Baker, who has enormous capacity to produce several lines of vaccines will work closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO) from day one.
“We intend to operate on globally certified standards. All the vaccines produced here will be pre qualified by WHO, and if they look at the Yaba facility and they feel it is best to use a green field, we will be more than willing to use one of our lands which we have not touched,” he added.
On what types of vaccines will be produced, he said the priority will be on the vaccines most needed and critical. “From government perspective, yellow fever vaccine appears to be a priority because globally, there appears to be shortage of it. There are also very few factories with the capacity to produce it.
“We are also looking at the routine immunisation vaccines. We will pick the ones we believe there could be gaps. And we have identified tetanus vaccine, hepatitis B vaccine as some of such. Hepatitis B demand is high, and it fits both into pediatric and adult immunisation. We will kick start with those ones, and from there we can move to others.”