Charles Olalekan is the Chief Operating Officer and Managing Director of the Institute of Human Virology of Nigeria. In this interview with Martins Ifijeh, he said beyond person-to-person transmission of COVID-19, surface infection from door handles, rails, tables, among others could lead to transmission. He also spoke on the activities of the institute in ensuring a healthy Nigeria
The spread of COVID-19 is taking a toll on Nigeria, how do we address this?
First thing is that Nigerians should not panic as there is a high recovery rate from the disease. Infancy up to the age of 59 years or so have a high potential to survive it as long as they do not have underlying issues like diabetes, heart problem, HIV, and the likes. Those with such underlying problems should isolate themselves from people around them. They should also keep hydrating; take lots of water and fruits. The disease depresses the respiratory system, and the only way it does that is by going to the lungs, and ventilators are in short supply. Recently, US said it had only 67, 000 ventilators, and out of which, 70 per cent were already in use due to the high flu season.
Sometimes, not having some infrastructures may come back to help you. We don’t congregate our old people in Nigeria, and they are mostly not in the urban area. They are generally in the rural areas. Even social distancing is already practiced there because their houses are evenly dispersed. The chances that our old people will be adversely affected is not as high as in Italy and US where old people leave in old people’s and nursing homes, with a lot of them already having preexisting conditions. Some have weak hearts, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic ailments, and this poses a lot of risks if they get infected with COVID-19.
In Washington, an individual who was infected, in turn infected a nursing home and then the nursing home had 49 deaths, but we don’t have that here.
We need to listen to our public health experts. We need to wash our hands regularly, practice social distancing and other hygiene protocols. New York is presently dealing with surface infection; touching door handles, tables or rails are enough to transmit the virus. Beyond social distancing and hand washing, Nigerians need to be careful with surfaces, including door handles and rails.
CBN said it will put a trillion naira on the table to tackle the pandemic and has encouraged private sectors to access the fund. Will IHVN take advantage of this?
We will take advantage of every opportunity we have. Our challenges are that these announcements are made without guidelines. What parts of the industry are they dedicated into? Some said laboratories, some said to build infrastructure. I work in an environment where things are very specific. If you are going for a tuberculosis grant for instance, the area of intervention is defined, so I can write to that, but when someone says I am putting N100 billion down, the person need to specify. We are talking to our bankers because we know the federal government doesn’t give money directly. Our bankers will help us scan the environment and advise us.
For a nonprofit organisation like IHVN, what are your major challenges?
First is the operating environment. A lot of people in this clime do not understand the role of nonprofit organisations. We cannot blame them because there seems to be a mushroom of some nonprofit organisations. So they see you sometimes as someone begging for money to take care of yourself. They don’t see the larger impact.
Funding is another challenge. We have to struggle for funds and grants. We don’t have specified line of funding like it applies in the US. We practically compete for funds, and they come with specific mandates. So even if you see an intervention you need to get into, as long as your funding doesn’t allow you to do that you can’t do it. For instance, on this COVID-19, we would have loved to do something, but we can’t. We are scrambling to even print basic material for our staff.
What is IHVN success rate?
In terms of getting funding, if you have 10 per cent of the funding you want, it is a high success rate. So what we do is keep applying. If your application is sound you will get a second chance of defending your budget. We have had 25 to 30 per cent success rate. The good thing is that we have had consistent funding. We have been getting direct funding from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States since 2009.
The funding goes zigzag. When we started our intervention was in 27 states in Nigeria, then they said we needed to streamline for efficiency. So we came down to about 10 states then in 2015 we narrowed to four states. Guess what, one of the states has more funds than even when we were in 10 states. So it is not a function of how spread they are, it is a function of what they want you to achieve with the fund.
For instance, we are in Rivers State now and the state is considered a high risk area for HIV. Our budget from CDC on Rivers alone is more than 50 per cent of the other three states, including Katsina, FCT and Nasarawa.
The isolation centre in Yaba, which was also used during Ebola in 2014, is one of the facilities we were using for TB management. But we had to redistribute the patients to other centres when Ebola came.
What prompted the building of your new research edifice?
A lot of the laboratories in the country require uninterrupted 24 hour power supply. So our idea is to replicate all our laboratories in one place. We have laboratories in Jos, Zaria, Asokoro, Gwagwalada, and so on. While these labs will be maintained, we needed to replicate all in one building, which is the edifice you are talking about. This will bring brilliant minds in Africa to come here for research.
For instance, on COVID-19, nobody is travelling out of Nigeria, so how do we develop vaccines? How do we know if chloroquine is effective or not? Nobody is testing it. If we set the edifice up, put heads together with smart Nigerian scientists, we will come up with solutions because they will not have to worry about power or other things. The platform will bring our bright scientists together.
How has the board of directors of IHVN supported your work?
They have been very supportive. Some of them are from the banking sector. For our edifice, a lot of the funds came from their influence. When the board was first set up, I was the only person with a business back ground, my boss then would say it appeared I get bored anytime there were discussions because they talk often about science. I agreed with him that we needed to expand it to bring in some business minds; cutting across advertising, communication, banking and finance, and so on. Today, we have a very robust and supportive board.