Apart from developing the initial non-pharmaceutical protocols for dealing with COVID-19, there were hopes that Nigeria will play key roles in the discovery of vaccines and probably curative drugs to help check the virus. But while some countries, especially the developed world economic powers have made tremendous progress in research for the vaccine, other countries like Nigeria are still at the primary stages of identifying potential home-grown remedy. Onyebuchi Ezigbo writes on the constraints
Nigeria is part of a global community that is eager to secure a solution against the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the world. At the onset of the outbreak of the novel virus in 2019, the country joined other nations of the world to seek ways of confronting the disease.
Indeed Nigeria has reputable scientists and professionals in the medical field that can hold their own anywhere in the world but this potentials have so far failed to yield any significant result in terms of research and development of vaccines for the prevention of COVID-19 Infection.
The country at present can boost of an array of research institutes located in various federal and state universities. In addition, we have the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) in Abuja and the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) based in Lagos that are supposed to be centres of excellence in research into health issues.
So far, there are key factors that militating against success in medical research in the country. These have been identified as poor Infrastructure, funding and lack of politcal will by government and leaders in the country.
Closing the Funding Gaps
NIPRD has attributed the apparent slow rate of progress in the local research effort targeted at developing anti COVID-19 vaccines on poor funding. The institute’s Director General and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Obi Peter Adigwe lamented that lack of adequate funding is robbing the agency of opportunity to showcase the abundant capacity of the array of professionals at NIPRD.
Adigwe who spoke recently to ournalists at the headquarters of the research agency in Abuja, said that non of the organisations or philanthropists in the country he approached for funding assistance responded.
He said: “We are proposing Niprimune capsule—with Andrographis paniculata ingredient
— for treatment of COVID-19. We projected it for COVID-19 but it needs to pass through those processes before it will be approved.
“We (NIPRD) were the first to develop this particular drug that has effect on the immune system and since it has affects on the immune system, we ran it through the artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities we had and we said, this will be good for COVID-19 since COVID-19 affects people whose immune system are compromised. We have done all the pre-clinical tests that show us that this will be very good and we now need to move to the clinical side and it is expensive. And that is what we need funding for and nobody is coming forward”.
Adigwe said that researchers at NIPRD had to use machine learning and artificial intelligence capacity to identify that Niprimune may have activities in the management of COVID-19.
“During that time, almost a year ago, we have come on the television to appeal to philanthropists, development partners to support NIPRD with the funds that will enable us undertake the remaining scienctific activities that will enable us bring this product to the market for COVID-19. It will shock you to learn that a few days ago, the authorities in Thailand approved andrographics maniculatal – its the active ingredient of this product that I am holding in my hand. The authorities in Thailand have approved a tea based on hydrographics for treatment of COVID-19.
“In the meantime, NIPRD, even if we are one of the first in the world to come up with the hypothesis and this could help in COVID-19, the relevant foundations, philanthropists, funding agencies have still not supported us to the level where we can finish the research to enable us bring this product to the fore.”
Adigwe also said that the agency had written to several development partners and philanthropist groups for assistance to further develop the drug but to no avail.
According to NIPRD DG, “if the agency haven’t written request for support letters, it had written at least to 30 development partners and philanthropic organisations, the Otedolas, Rabius, Dangotes, all the foundations, MTN and all others. It will surprise you to know that the only organisation that has responded to partner us to take the product to the next level is an organisation that is situated in Burkina Faso. Does this not tell you how rich people in this country care for medical research”.
The NIPRD Chief Executive emphasised the need for Nigerians to appreciate the importance of pharmaceutical research and development for the country to achieve medicine security. He cited the COVID-19 pandemic as creating opportunities for improved funding of research into tropical and other diseases, adding that NIPRD had already developed protocols for testing of locally made ventilators, and disinfectants delivery devices.
Efforts at Integrating Traditional Medicine
While expressing concern over the state of affairs in medical research, Minister of state for Health, Dr. Olurunnimbe Mamora said Africa must pause and reflect on how well it has fared in the promotion, developing researching and ultimate integration of traditional medicine into the main stream of health care delivery system.
Mamora made the remark at a ministerial press briefing to mark the 2020 African Traditional Medicine Day celebration with the theme “Two Decades of African Traditional Medicine (2001-2020): What Progress in Countries?”
The minister of state said the current COVID-19 pandemic has brought the entire world to its knees due to its ravaging effect on health, economy and social well-being of humanity, with countries inevitably being forced to look inwards for local solution which makes the time for stock taking of achievement and failure in traditional medicine sector, now.
“You will recall that Madagascar came up with a herbal product, called Covid Organics which claims to be preventive and curative for COVID-19, although this claim is yet to be scientifically proven, but it would not be out of place to acknowledge this effort and its a good step in African continent. I must commend the gallant efforts of some of our herbal practitioners who made similar moves in this regard; we urge them to step forward to be counted”, the minister of state said.
Speaking further, Mamora said that Nigeria is blessed with over 8,000 species of medicinal plants which provides low hanging fruits for the production of agro allied pharmaceutical raw materials, herbal medicines, trado medicines and body care products to mention a few.
He said that the Federal Ministry of Health has requested traditional herbal medicine practitioner who claimed to have herbal medicines for the management of COVID-19 to submit such claims for necessary evaluation and validation.
However while speaking at a recent media briefing by the Presidential Taskforce on Control of COVID-19, Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire said that progress is being made in finding local vacinne therapy.
According to the minister, “Nigeria has developed an indigenous vaccine candidate, which will require considerable investment to get through trials. We shall seek sponsorship to take the initiative further”.
Meanwhile, Enahire had earlier said the federal government was setting aside N10 billion to support local manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines.
Lack of Political Will and Coordination
On its part, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), said lack of politcal will is at the heart of the poor showing in research and development of local drug therapy or vaccines for Infectious diseases.
NAFDAC Director General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, who bared her mind recently during a programme monitored on the Nigerian National Television Authority said that poor funding and lack of determination to push research and development efforts to its logical conclusion was costing Nigeria several opportunities to shine in the global arena.
She said: “Because it takes a lot to conduct clinical trials, government has set aside some money through the Central Bank of Nigeria to support health sector research and development Intervention”.
Adeyeye gave glime of hope when she said that group of experts are currently evaluating proposals on herbal remedies for COVID-19. A lot of herbal remedy proposals are included and we are going to be stocking it up. She said that the N50 million for research by the academia is not enough because herbal remedy research or other medical research is very capital intensive.
“Nigeria has the potential, the Madagascar herbal therapy which is mainly made up of Atermesia has its likes in Nigeria for years. We have Mom which is called Dogonyaro that has anti malaria. But we don’t enough data on them in terms of research and that is what we are doing. Adeyeye said that having the political will is very important whether it is for the production of vaccines or herbal remedies.
“What we need is the political will whether it is the vaccine or herbal remedy. The politcal will is important so that we don’t keep depending on other countries but to have pride in what are capable doing ourselves”.
In the meantime, hope of Nigeria’s participation in the global search for therapeutic solution to COVID-19 was further diminished by long period of shut down of the universities caused by the industrial action embarked upon by lecturers. Even though the leadership of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) kept assuring the nation that its members were at work doing research, nothing significant came out of it.
Perhaps, what is apparent from the views expresed by stakeholders is that there are positive indications that Nigeria can develop local remedies for dealing with COVID-19 and other Infectious diseases if adequate effort is put into the endeavour including funding and proper coordination.