Kenneth Anchang Yongabi is a Professor of Public Health, Infectiology and Phytobiotechnology at the Imo State University, Owerri. He is a Cameroonian national and a member of the African Union Scientific Research and Innovation Council. Yongabi is a consultant to W.H.O., HPD Afro Health Literacy for youths and adolescents. In this interview with AMBY UNEZE in Owerri, this co-founder, and Principal Research fellow at STK Biotech, Owerri, gave more insight into the COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts.
On his opinion on the current COVID-19 Pandemic ravaging the global community and the ongoing conspiracy theories being bandied about as the major cause of the pandemic, Yongabi said: “We live in a world where we coexist with plants, animals and microbes. It is not new that we have pandemic today. We’ve had pandemics in different parts of places in the past. Humanity still existed and today we still exist. I would say that we will be faced with future pandemics. Pandemic is not a new thing to us today. What should be new is the way we fight it. This pandemic is actually quaking the world because it’s not racist; it doesn’t respect continent and it doesn’t respect class. Also, the fact that the transmissibility is so fast is another reason the pandemic is quaking the world. And its knockdown rate is pretty fast. These are the unique elements of this particular COVID-19.
We’ve had other regionalised epidemic like the Ebola which actually touched more on Africa. It didn’t quake the world like the current COVID-19.
Let me say this, COVID-19 has been in existence. We find them in various species of wild animals like cats and lions which have feline COVID-19 and even other domestic animals like dogs which have canine COVID-19.
We have equally had Coronaviruses that caused epidemic in the past like SARS COVID-2. There was also the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS COVID-2).
But, today’s Coronavirus has a unique genetic makeup. It comes from the Coronavirus SARS COVID-2. It has the prototype of the SARS COVID-2. But it has a unique gene. That unique gene prompted the WHO to call it COVID-19. The figure 19 represents the year this one was discovered which was 2019. It started from a poultry or seafood market in Wuhan, China. This gives credence to the suspicion of animal to human transmission.
There are also many conspiracy theories about the transmission but in science, we don’t work with conspiracy theories. There is no strong evidence to back it up. All we know is that COVID-19 has been in existence. Right now, all we’re seeing especially from the results of the tests being carried out is that they’re using serological techniques where they’re able to identify the antibodies for the COVID-19 among the sufferers. So, we can’t put a finger on any conspiracy theory because there is no strong evidence to isolate specifically any of these conspiracy theories. All that is important before us all now is that we have a malaise before us and we need to fight it out.
Giving more details on how we can fight it out especially in Nigeria and Africa at large, he stated “I think what the world is missing is that it is fighting this pandemic as an isolated case. The global community is hammering on hand washing; they use sanitizers, social distancing and self isolation as major preventive measures. These are good but there are no measures for the next possible pandemic in the future. That’s the error number one. The world needs to learn that there had been pandemics in the past and the world scaled those pandemics. Now, we’re faced with another pandemic here today. Possibly, we may also be faced with another pandemic in the future. Though, I’m not praying for that. The world needs to put down an infrastructure that can contain Covid-19 today and future because there may be other pandemics. And the future one may possibly be more aggressive than what we have today.
On what we need to do, I think the world is responding to the fight. You’ve heard of social distancing. That’s a very good measure. Also, the sanitation part of the fight– washing of hand– is very important. But, these again are preventive measures which are geared towards ensuring that we reduce as much as possible the transmissibility of the virus. To treat those that are infected now is a Herculean challenge because there’s no known drug that we can put a finger on and claim to be a cure for the virus. Governments across the world are doing their best establishing infrastructure like isolation centres where they quarantine the infected persons and try their best to engage them to recover.
There are fears that they could be overwhelmed. I commend the governments in Africa for the efforts they have put towards the fight against COVID-19. think what they need to do is build health infrastructure that is resilient not only to address COVID-19 but to preempt future and re-emerging infections.
To this end, our research team in the STK Biotech have a proposal which we call Evolutionary Learning Conceptual Laboratory (ELCL) for prevention and management of infectious diseases. This is an article that we have written sometime ago and we have published it in the American Journal of Experimental Medicine. What we mean by ELCL is that we need to come up not with the linear approach to tackling infectious diseases but a holistic integrated approach.
What this integrated approach means is that you bring in different forms of therapies. You also bring indigenous knowledge as well as the preventive measures. Let all these come as a package to tackling infectious diseases. It should not only be focusing on vaccine approach and producing synthetic drugs but mixing it with indigenous drugs, vaccines preventing Medicine. So, we call that in our package as the Evolutionary Learning Conceptual Laboratory for prevention and control of infectious diseases globally.
What I mean by evolutionary is because it will be evolving overtime. Other generations will come in and see what is already in the process. They learn the process and inject in new knowledge into the system and it keeps on growing. That is the meaning of evolutionary. Then, learning. We all know that there’s no one who can call himself an expert on this pandemic. That’s why you realize that the knowledge dynamics keep changing. This will occur with different pandemics. Also we need to look at the environmental changes that we’re having, enabling the diseases to jump from animals to humans. So, the key thing is the use of integrated approach and stop focusing on linear model. We cannot use the linear model to handle this pandemic. The best approach remains the Evolutionary Learning Conceptual Laboratory approach in order to sustainably take care of this pandemic.
Using African model to fight the COVID-19 war, does the Revolutionary Learning Conceptual Laboratory part of that model? Yes. African model approach also fits into this evolutionary learning conceptual laboratory and what I’m about to say is very important. The world is faced with COVID-19 pandemic which is attacking European countries, American countries and Asia as well as African countries. But, if you look at this geopolitical setting, you realise that the environmental and socio-political conditions in the Western countries are slightly different from what we have in Africa. We cannot be so complacent to stick with the models the United States is using to tackle this pandemic. We know there are global models set by the WHO. Yes. We have to adhere to that. And they include social distancing and washing of hands. That is a good measure.
But, in African context how do you do social distancing effectively in rural communities where we have Afrocentric culture? In these rural communities, the cultural, social, financial and traditional determinants are there. For instance, you have a house where five people are sleeping on the same bed, nine people sleeping in the same room and all of that. How do you do social distancing in such environment? We need to be careful about that. We should be careful when it comes to intrinsic differences when it comes to African context. We don’t just play lips service by saying social distancing. You can enforce social distancing in the cities, yes. But how do you enforce it in the villages? You know that 70 percent of Africa’s population lives in the rural areas. People live in one house and do everything together. That is the fact about it. The aero source is there. Africans need to be able to design Afrocentric approach to control of COVID-19. But, do we have that model? No.
On recovering, it has been severally said that COVID-19 patients with strong immune system quickly recover from the virus. So far, several people are recovering from the virus. To this end and as an expert in this field of science, what do you think Nigerians should do to scale up their immune systems?, he maintained that the issue of hand sanitizers and the aggressive move to sanitize our hands is very important. “I’m happy to see that in the entrance to many houses and businesses, there is a bucket full of running water and soap which people use to wash their hands before entry. That’s one of the greatest things that this COVID- 19 has done to Nigerians. We’re now a little bit conscious about hygiene and sanitation. In the past, we have been singing about personal hygiene and regular hand washing, and people were not serious about that. Today, almost everybody is using bucket with running water. But, we need to worry about the social determinants. How many of us have such buckets with soap and running water? What kind of water do we use to wash our hands? Is it sterilized purified water? Is it well water? We need to look at these things otherwise it’s going to be a joke fighting such pandemics like COVID-19.
The hand sanitizers that are being used right now, how many Nigerians can sustain the use of hand sanitizers? Have we developed a standard operating procedure (SOP) for producing hand sanitizers? Sanitizers are made of alcohol and you know alcohol is carcinogenic; they are volatile. We use hand sanitizers and we inhale it as well. Are we saying that we are aware of the alcohol consequences of hand sanitizers? Have we developed a protocol for telling a lay person how to use hand sanitizers? What’s the distance between robbing the hand sanitizer and staying away from your nose in order to prevent the alcohol from being inhaled? It’s not a question of asking people to use hand sanitizers. Again, we need to have evolutionary conceptual laboratory. We should keep a standard procedure on how to use the hand sanitizers.
The standards for hand sanitizers are a minimum of 70 percent alcohol. Are all the hand sanitizers reaching that minimum level? How many people would buy hand sanitizers in the villages and use it all through this period when COVID-19 is going to last? We need to look at a community approach model. Who is coming in to a particular community should be known by the community.
COVID-19 is actually a single stranded positively charged ribonucleic acid. This means that the virus is an acid. It has the largest genome for RNA viruses with more than 30 kilobases (kb). That is the COVID-19. Then, if you look at the particles size, it becomes 80-150 nano particles. That means it’s very small in size and it’s an acid. The best for an acid is that you need something like a base or salt to neutralize it. If you bring in common table salt in your sanitizer, it will neutralize it.
For me, hand washing using caustic soda is simply the best and not the sanitizers. We need to think of the efficacy of our hand sanitizers. Yes, alcohol will be able to lice the cells but, how long will your hand sanitizers stay in your hands if you have droplet particles of COVID-19 The hand sanitizers most times quickly evaporate and when it does, how are we sure it has neutralized the virus? These are questions that call for designing of standard operating procedure and standard educative procedure on the modus operandi of these hand sanitizers.
Again, what is the pore size of the face masks? We haven’t had time to do all these analysis.
Back to your question about the immune boosting, the best way to treat viral infections is to boost the immune system. When HIV came, we were only struggling to boost immune systems. The anti-retroviral drugs have not been able to completely knock out the virus. Look at the Chikungunya virus, there is no particular drug that kills it. It’s same with Zika virus which rattled the South American countries. Look at Hepatitis. There is no particular drug that you can place your hands on and claim it can cure hepatitis. I think six percent of Nigerian population has hepatitis. West Nine fever and Lassa fever are there. There are no known drugs for their treatment.
So, the target for fighting viral infections is boosting the immune system. It is a critical tool to fighting any virus be it COVID-19, HIV or whatever infection. When the immune system is strong, it has enough antibodies that ward off any diseases. It’s very important for us to boost our immune system by being able to eat well. But the question is, how many persons in our rural communities have access to good food? How many Nigerians and indeed Africans can boast of balanced diet?
Here in STK Biotech, we know there are substances that can stimulate the immune system and it’s important to package such substances; look at the dietetics and how and when to use them and build them into one package. We’ve been to provide science-based evidence for medically important phyto-products readily and locally sourced from the communities, while at the same time make available training, laboratory production space and expertise for capacity development of researchers based in tertiary and other institutions.
And we have been able produce such products such as STK Phytoimmune which is indicated as immune support for HIV/AIDS patients on antiretroviral therapies that enhances the increase in CD4 counts and significantly reduces the viremia and cleanses the liver. This is evident in the stabilization of the liver enzyme markers: SGOT, SGPT etc. We do know that the toxic side effects of synthetic antiretroviral therapies are felt at the level of the liver and kidneys. Phytoimmune is a great complement to the antiretroviral drugs enhancing and prolonging lives. Its major constituent is naturally extracted beta glucans with immune stimulatory activities.
Another product is STK Hepatozone and STK Boosters that are antiviral and immune boosting nutraceuticals extracted organically from locally consumed mushrooms and vegetables. They are good support for management of hepatitis, sickle cell anaemia and other viral infections such as viral hemorrhagic fevers.
STK SKAN is a supplement made of 10 per cent antioxidant properties, 70 per cent immune boosting properties and 20 per cent antiviral properties. It has been tested toxicologically and found to be safe as well through an exit poll clinical trial; it has demonstrated good lab and clinical outcomes for patients with leukemia, prostate, breast and cervical cancers. It is administered as a support therapy to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. STK SKAN has demonstrated good clinical and laboratory outcomes in cleaning the toxic side effects of chemo and radiotherapies”, he said.
We do not claim to have any cure but we do know that if people’s immune systems are boosted that their bodies are then better equipped to fight off any infection. Also if they do fall ill and are infected that our supplements especially the Phytoimmune has shown great promise in managing the patients back to full health especially in early detection and treatment
On his message to the Federal Government in the face of this pandemic, Prof Yongabicommended the Nigerian government for the way it has fought this war against the spread of Covid-19 pandemic so far. All the steps the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC) has taken so far are commendable. They devised various means to conscientize the people.
We need to strengthen our medical system by bringing in complementary Medical approach into the mainstream Medical system.
I will like to commend the Department for Traditional and Alternative Medicine led by Pharmacist Zainab Sharrif for her yearning for the complimentary and alternative medicine to be put into the mainstream medical system. You need all these branches of medicine in order to fight. The federal government needs to look into that by not ignoring the traditional medicine and embracing wholly the linear approach. They don’t just have to focus on preventive measures like what they have. They also need to focus on other complimentary approaches. They should identify them, look at the evidences behind them and bring a holistic integrated approach to fighting not just COVID-19 but other scourges in the future. We’re doing this. If we sustain this, we should be able to use the lessons in the future.
Again, the federal government should increase research for drugs. I think they are beginning to do that because the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research (NIPRE) is there. But the government needs to strengthen the research aspect and speed it up so as to look for treatment for not just COVID-19 but other viral infections. We have a lot natural resources around which have the potential to produce drugs. An example is the chloroquine which came from a plant.