Puncturing Conspiracy Theories on COVID-19 Vaccines

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Igbawase Ukumba writes that by presenting themselves for vaccination President Muhammadu Buhari, the Vice President and state governors may have punctured conspiracy theories vyabout safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines

After taking the COVID-19 vaccine in public, President Muhammadu Buhari said on his Twitter handle that his decision was a demonstration of leadership and faith in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

“I have received my first jab and I wish to commend it to all eligible Nigerians, to do the same so that we can be protected from the virus. The vaccine offers hope for a safe country, free of Coronavirus,” the Nigerian President stated in his Twitter handle.

Speaking on why political leaders in the country were the first set of people to take the COVID-19 vaccine, the Federal Government said the decision was to puncture the conspiracy theory going round about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. The government also said that it would do a lot of enlightenment campaigns to neutralise the effect of the conspiracy theories and remove fear from the people’s mind.

The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who stated this in an interview with journalists in Abuja, pleaded with religious leaders, political leaders and elites to join in assuring their followers that the government would not introduce unsafe vaccines. According to him, the government has set the target of vaccinating, at least, 70 percent of Nigerians in the next two years.

He said: “As of today, the government is busy trying to ramp up the vaccine and is talking to COVAX and various organisations in the world so that in the next two years, 70 percent of Nigerians would have been vaccinated. It would be such a tragedy if, after all efforts and logistics, the vaccines are here and then some people are dissuading Nigerians not to take the vaccine because of their past unpleasant experience or because of some very unscientific conspiracies.”

To extend the hope for the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, state governors in the country replicated the President Buhari’s public demonstration of leadership and faith in the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccines in their respective states by first taking the jab. Hence Governor Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa State, alongside his deputy, Emmanuel Akabe, received their COVID-19 vaccine inoculation in the Government House, Lafia last week.

Speaking after receiving the first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine, Governor Sule said the vaccine was very safe and called on residents to disabuse their minds against any doubt. The governor therefore called on residents of the state, especially frontline workers, to present themselves to be vaccinated without fear.

“I commend President Muhammadu Buhari, the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, and the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency for their efforts to ensure Nasarawa State got the vaccines in good time. May I caution that taking the first dose of the Vaccine may not confer immunity against COVID-19. I therefore urge those who will take the vaccines to continue to use their facemasks, pending the administration of the second dose,” Sule cautioned.

However, there may be a seeming distrust from the political class. This range from citizens who are sceptical about the government’s ability to deliver a coherent plan, and to put in place necessary modalities for the vaccination exercise until success is achieved.

Acccording to an analyst, “The government has disappointed Nigerians before. Ordinary citizens find it difficult to trust political leaders. Take the way government handled measures to offset the effect of the lockdown. Its efforts left much to be desired. This added to doubts of government intentions.”

The analysts further said that many Nigerians do not know how potent the newly procured Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is. He added that some Nigerians are bothered at the speed with which things have been done from testing to manufacturing. The analysts believe it may be an uphill task on the side of the government to win people’s trust.

“Consequently, that could be why the government is trying to reduce fears by encouraging its top officials to take the vaccinations,” the analyst maintained.

It was announced sometime in March this year that Nigeria received 3.94 million COVID-19 vaccines shipped by the Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX). These were Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in India. The government also announced that it was expecting 41 million doses through the auspices of the African Union. And the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) had approved the vaccines for use.

Earlier this year, Nigeria had not specified which among the available COVID-19 vaccines: Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna or Oxford-AstraZeneca would be procured but said it would budget for all of them. This was before considering issues of sustainability from storage point of view.

It was against this background that a Virologist and senior research fellow, Dr Solomon Bakarey in his insight on COVID-19 Vaccines said: “The Pfizer vaccine, can only be stored at 70 degrees centigrade condition while the Moderna vaccine can remain stable at refrigerator temperature for about 30 days. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, due to its different formulation, only needs to be kept in normal refrigerated conditions. This is better for Nigeria given the country’s erratic power supply.”

Nigeria plans to vaccinate 40 percent of its citizens against the COVID-19 before the end of 2021, and 70 percent by the end of 2022. But the government has not released details of how this will be achieved, though it has been possible to piece together some elements. For example, there is an online registration site which also gives details about which group of people will be prioritised. At the front of the queue are frontline healthcare workers, those who work in high risk areas like entry points and contact tracing teams.

COVID-19 vaccination teams are also included. Others include security personnel teachers and the elderly, especially those with co-mobidities like cancer, diabetes, asthma, HIV and AIDS, and immunocompromised patients. Then the general population will follow.

Be that as it may, the Virologist alleged that Nigeria has not unveiled a coherent plan for the vaccination exercise that will run through 2022. Bakarey said that the unveiling of a coherent plan for the vaccination exercise is a big problem, and it was making Nigerians skeptical about the vaccines.

She said: “Many countries, including some African neighbours, have rolled out distribution plans for the vaccines they have procured. But the Nigerian government is yet to unveil a coherent plan. In my view, this means that the government isn’t sincere about making sure that there is equitable distribution. The consequence is that people will have doubt about the efficacy of its efforts as well as the vaccine. They might therefore be reluctant to show interest when the vaccines are made available. This will not help the country and the international community will not take the country serious.”

Nevertheless, she continued that Nigeria could learn from the vaccination plans of countries such as the US, Canada, the UK, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana. She added that it boils down to phasing the distribution vaccines across different groups of the society, starting the priority lists with the most at risk population, teachers and then finally the general population.

Nigeria stands to gain a lot if it adopts their COVID-19 vaccine strategies to prevent and control the scourge.

Acccording to the Virologist, “These include having a coherent strategy to distribute the vaccine considering equitable distribution. Unveiling a coherent plan for distribution and effective vaccination strategies. Educating the public on the time-line for the exercise. Communicating clearly to citizens about how it intends to reach the end point of the whole population.”

It will be recalled that Nigeria’s preference for Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines was due to the World Health Organisation-led COVAX global initiative failure to shortlist the country for the Pfizer vaccines following Nigeria’s inability to meet the standard requirement of being able to store the vaccines at the required 70 degrees Celsius.

Speaking at a virtual press conference, the Director WHO, African Region, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said only four African countries were shortlisted for the Pfizer vaccine out of the 13 countries that applied. Moeti said WHO could not risk the Pfizer vaccines being wasted.

She said: “Around 320,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been allocated to four African countries – Cape Verde, Rwanda, South Africa and Tunisia. This vaccine has received WHO Emergency Use Listing but requires country to be able to store and distribute doses at minus 70 degrees Celsius.”

To access an initial limited volume of pfizer vaccine, countries were invited to submit proposals. Thirteen African countries submitted proposals and were evaluated by multi-agency committee based on current mortality rates, new cases and trends, and capacity to handle the ultra-cold chain needs of the vaccine.”

This announcement allows countries fine-tune their planning for COVID-19 immunisation campaigns. We urge African nations to ramp up readiness and finalise their national vaccine deployment plans. Regulatory processes, cold chain distribution plans need to be in place to ensure vaccines are safely expedited from ports of entry to delivery. We can’t afford to waste a single dose.”

Unlike the other vaccines on the market, the BioNTech/pfizer vaccine, which has the highest WHO rating, is expected to be stored at 70 degrees celsius which Nigeria could not meet. However, WHO regional director for Africa said countries that failed to make the Pfizer list could get the Oxford-AstraZeneca.

QUOTE

To extend the hope for the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, state governors in the country replicated the President Buhari’s public demonstration of leadership and faith in the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccines in their respective states by first taking the jab. Hence Governor Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa State, alongside his deputy, Emmanuel Akabe, received their COVID-19 vaccine inoculation in the Government House, Lafia last week. Speaking after receiving the first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine, Governor Sule said the vaccine was very safe and called on residents to disabuse their minds against any doubt. The governor therefore called on residents of the state, especially frontline workers, to present themselves to be vaccinated without fear. I commend President Muhammadu Buhari, the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, and the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency for their efforts to ensure Nasarawa State got the vaccines in good time. May I caution that taking the first dose of the Vaccine may not confer immunity against COVID-19. I therefore urge those who will take the vaccines to continue to use their facemasks, pending the administration of the second dose,” Sule cautioned