Prof. Sunday Omilabu is a Consultant Virologist and Director, Central Research Laboratory, College of Medicine University of Lagos/Lagos University Teaching Hospital. In this interview with journalists, he said Nigerians should adhere to the lockdown directive and other health advisories as they would help in curbing spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria. He also spoke on how plasma of recovered patients can be used in the treatment of the disease. Martins Ifijeh brings excerpts
How effective will the lockdown help in curbing spread of COVID-19?
Simply put, it is to restrict movement or mingling of people. In this context; it is to restrict our people from contracting COVID-19 or spreading it among ourselves. If we restrict ourselves to our houses the chances of COVID-19 will be minimal. That is the first thing government could do to control or checkmate the spread and transmission of the virus.
Again, while we are on lockdown, the next thing is to apply all that we have heard on television and radio jingles about living a hygienic life style. Ideally, we should cultivate the culture of hand washing using soap and water. Wash our hands before we eat anything, and before we touch our face. During Ebola outbreak, we applied it and it helped.
Lockdown is the way to stop local transmission. Some people are growing the virus in their body without knowing it and that is why we should maintain social distancing so that we don’t cross-infect each other.
It is important for people to stay away from public places or where we know that there will be more than few people. And of course, we should also look within our community for people showing signs and symptoms of the virus, it is our duty to raise alarm. I think whatever can create a scene, whatever that can bring people together is forbidden at this stage. That will negate the principle of lockdown. You can exercise within your own confinement. So we have to think outside the box. The essence of lockdown is to prevent our coming together, mingling together. The lockdown is not actually to punish.
Is it possible to still have community transmission after the lockdown?
Presence of coronavirus at the expiration of the lockdown is possible because we now have community transmission. I cannot say that the virus will be completely eliminated. We have to keep on waging war and always be conscious that there is a possibility of having the virus around. We still don’t need to mingle but we have to reduce the crowd. That is the only way to stop the virus transmission. What we really need to do at the expiration of the lockdown is not to relent in our efforts to practice hygienic way of life. We have to maintain social distancing. We have to keep on using the masks, the N95 particularly those of us that have signs and symptoms. Don’t forget that a good number of Nigerians are carrying the virus asymptomatically. All of us have to practice hygienic lifestyle. When we eat, we wash our hands, when we touch surfaces we wash our hands. Hand washing should be our way of life. Don’t forget that any object can carry the virus, and whatever we touch we must wash our hands thoroughly with soap. Soap and water will do the magic for us and make our hands free of the virus.
Is it true COVID-19 survivors have immunity against the disease?
A person that contracted the virus and survived has developed adequate immunity so the chances of being re-infected are very minute. That is why before the individual is discharged, we must make sure that he or she tested negative twice before the individual is finally discharged. And once you are discharged, it shows that you have adequate immunity to fight any remnant virus.
So the immunity is always very adequate before one gets discharged so there is no cause for any alarm, and no fear of re-infection. Again, on recovery of organs that were affected, once the individual recovers, the organs too will recover. Once there is immunity, the immunity will clear all the virus particles. It is a new disease we need to study more cases before we arrive to a conclusion if there are long time effects. Nutrition and immune system Nutrition plays a key role in the rapid development of the immune system. Viral infections are majorly cleared by body defence mechanisms. It is our body immune system that fights the viral infections. And we can achieve this if we take balanced nutrition. We need vitamins, we need minerals, and we can only get this through well balanced nutritious meals. If we have good immune system, the virus particles will not overgrow in our body. A good body immune system clears viral infections faster and better.
How does the virus affect pregnant women and breastfeeding?
From our little experience, the infected mothers that we have during this outbreak had no virus in their breast milk. This is not farfetched because the virus is localised in the respiratory tracts; it takes a longer time before the virus can moves into the bloodstream or into the body and that is what we have seen. It is not a systemic viral infection. Whether the virus can get to the fetus is a matter of study because it is a new disease, we still need more studies to actually prove that. It is an instance where we have anaemia that will make it much easier for the virus to get access into the foetus.
We heard plasma of successfully treated patients can help in treatment of the infection, how true?
It is feasible and doable in Nigeria but we need to determine the level of antibodies in those blood. Of course, we need to show that such plasma has the power that will neutralise the virus particles. It is very good and we can do it in Nigeria and we have plans to do it.
Is it possible to have our laboratory scientists develop vaccines against the virus?
There is no enabling environment. If you want to develop vaccine you need resources and there must be enough funds. But is the country’s economy buoyant to afford that? Then, of course, the manufacturers are not also encouraged to bring their resources to carry out such development. It is a huge capital intensive project. Out industrialist is not ready to put money in such a venture that will take several years, before any commercial purposes, it takes a minimum of 10 to 15 years before a good vaccine is now made available. These are some of the issues surrounding why lab scientists in Nigeria are not venturing into vaccine production.
Is self-medication advisable in the treatment of COVID-19?
We have to stop self-medication once we are feeling unwell especially at this period, we should go to the next healthcare centre, let the healthcare caregivers carry out their observation, let them decide and tell us what to do. They can easily test if it is malaria or something combined with malaria. We should stop self-medication and self-treatment to stop this calamity.
What is the role of local herbs in the treatment of COVID-19?
On the use of local herbs; we have to very cautious. We should use all those local herbs that are licensed by NAFDAC. It is only those that NAFDAC labeled that we’re sure will not be poisonous and will not destroy our organs and it is only those herbal materials that must be taken with adequate measures stated. We know that there are a lot of promising, efficacies with our local herbs but we should make sure we limit ourselves to those that NAFDAC approved.
What is your assessment of Nigeria’s response so far?
It is as excellent as able because we have been able to detect promptly and the government made available consumables. The patients are being managed at various isolation centers. We have been discharging a number of these patients. That is the mark of this success story. Patients are being isolated promptly and diagnosis carried on promptly and many of them are getting well and being discharged. To me, that is a huge success and we should not relax on our oars but put in more effort to make sure that we don’t allow the virus to stay in our community.