Virologists, others urge caution over FG’s rush to acquire COVID-19 vaccines
Federal government does not have enough information on the vaccines it is pushing to acquire for Nigerians
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PROMINENT virologists in the country say the federal government should exercise caution in its quest to acquire COVID-19 vaccines for Nigerians.
Virologists, who spoke with The ICIR on plans by the federal government to purchase the vaccines, noted that there were still a lot of unanswered questions concerning the efficacy and possible side effects of the newly developed drugs.
The federal government had, on January 5, disclosed that it had commenced moves to get 42 million COVID-19 vaccines through the World Health Organisation’s COVAX scheme.
COVAX is a partnership involving governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropists aimed at ensuring equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Going by government’s plan, the 42 million vaccines would cover one fifth of Nigeria’s population. The government intends to inoculate 40 percent of the country’s population in 2021, and another 30 percent in 2022. However, scientists say an individual requires two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
A shipment of 100,000 doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is due to arrive in Nigeria by the end of January.
- FG doesn’t have enough information on vaccines
Executive director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Faisal Shuaib, who disclosed details of the Federal Government’s coronavirus vaccination plan at a press briefing of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 in Abuja on January 5, said President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and other top government officials would be the first to receive the vaccine.
The vaccination of the country’s top leaders would be televised live on national television in order to inspire public confidence in the vaccines, according to plans put in place by the government.
But, while speaking at the press briefing, NPHCDA boss, Shuaib, confirmed the fears held by many Nigerians when he admitted that the government did not have enough information about the vaccines.
Asked how long the protection offered by the vaccines would last, Shuaib said, “One thing that we are aware of is that this vaccine is new. So we do not have absolute information about how long they will last because the vaccines are just a few months’ old. It is only a question of time before we know exactly how long their immunity will last.”
A professor of virology at the Lagos State University (LASU), Bola Oyefolu, told The ICIR that it was wrong for the federal government to move to acquire the vaccines without having adequate information about its efficacy and side effects.
Oyefolu said he was part of a team of researchers assembled by the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) which sequenced the gene of a strain of the coronavirus found in Nigeria. In response to questions by our correspondent, Oyefolu suggested that the COVID-19 vaccine had not gone through all the processes that it should be subjected to before being administered on people.
“Those in government should ask themselves whether they are supposed to purchase these vaccines at this time. Have the vaccines gone through the normal processes that they are supposed to go through? There are a lot of issues surrounding the vaccines that are controversial. So why should Nigeria be in the lead in buying such a vaccine? That is wrong,” he said.
“Normally, a vaccine should go through trial, lasting averagely between two and three years. How can we say we want to purchase a vaccine that we have not studied properly?”
- Will the vaccine be effective against the new strain of coronavirus in Nigeria?
Oyefolu wondered if the Federal Government had determined whether the vaccine it ordered would provide effective protection against the new coronavirus strain that was recently discovered in Nigeria. The highly contagious strain has also been discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
“Now, we have a new mutant of the coronavirus. The truth is, there is a lot of work that is yet to be done (on the vaccines) and there was a rush to produce the vaccine. What if we buy the vaccine and it does not cover the new strain of coronavirus in the country? It is not reasonable to go for the vaccine at this moment,” the university don said.
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“It will indict the researchers in this country and make it appear as if we don’t know what we are doing. There is nothing like being sentimental or emotional about it. So far as work has not been concluded on the vaccines, for us to be going for it is wrong. It is wrong and unreasonable, and it means that we are compromising the health of the people.
“Now that we have a new strain of the virus in Nigeria, we need to study this thing first and ensure that the vaccine is effective on this new strain. We are not saying that Nigeria should not get the vaccine at all but we have to be sure of a lot of things first.
”I was privileged to be one of the team from the NIMR that sequenced the genes from one of the strains that we have here in Nigeria. It should first be ascertained that the vaccine can take care of all the various strains available, so why the haste?” he added.
Oyefolu noted with regrets that “health issues in the world have been politicised” as a result of economic considerations.
“The people that produced these vaccines on a large scale want to recoup their money and they will engage in all kinds of politicking to push the product,” he observed, wondering why the Nigerian government refused to look into the herbal remedy developed by an African country, Madagascar, for the coronavirus disease.
Advising the federal government to halt plans to get the vaccine for the moment, Oyefolu said Nigeria should rather focus on preventive measures, until it had answers to all unanswered questions concerning the vaccines.
He said, “What the new strain found in Nigeria, UK and South Africa is signalling is that we have not understood the virus completely and until you have all the information on a particular virus or pathogen, you cannot effectively produce a vaccine against it. The small details that you don’t know may be very vital and when you don’t understand this and you go ahead to produce a vaccine, the vaccine might fail.
“So Nigeria should be careful, and I don’t think we should go for it. We don’t understand the virus at the moment so the government should concentrate on preventive measures, rather than curative measures.
“This is because we are yet to understand the virus completely. You cannot cure what you don’t understand, but you can prevent.”
- FG should first determine level of herd immunity in the country
Another virologist and professor, Rosemary Audu, told The ICIR that there was a need to study the level of herd immunity in the country before going ahead to administer the vaccine on Nigerians.
Herd immunity is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, especially through previous infections, thereby reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity.
Audu said adequate knowledge of herd immunity would help the government to determine the distribution of the vaccine.
Audu said, “The federal government should prioritise the distribution of the vaccine. They need to know who to give first especially since the vaccine they are bringing will not be enough for the population.
“We need to do more studies to know which segments of the society are more at risk and in need of the vaccines and we can do that by measuring the herd immunity. If most of the people in the community have already come in contact with this virus and have developed immunity already, then the risk of those who have not been infected getting infected in that community is lower. So where the herd immunity is high in a community, the population that is not immunised is likely to have a lower risk. So we need to prioritise who we give this vaccine.”
- Religious leaders say FG should first get credible information on vaccine safety
Besides virologists, religious leaders also called on the government to exercise caution with the vaccines.
Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, secretary-general of the apex Muslim organisation in the country, Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), in a chat with The ICIR, noted that there were yet to be addressed misgivings and suspicions concerning the COVID-19 vaccines.
He said, “I understand, from the culture of medical practice, that vaccines are developed over time. So the suspicion here is, how can this vaccine be developed in just a few months? Does it mean that it was a pre-arranged thing? There are a lot of doubts being cast on the effectiveness of the vaccine but, unfortunately, these doubts are not verifiable because they are just journalistic accounts and social media posts.”
Aliyu said the WHO should use ‘verifiable facts and figures’ to enlighten the world and allay fears surrounding the vaccines, particularly concerning potential side effects.
“Then there is also the concern over whether the COVID-19 vaccine being deployed in other parts of the world is the same as the one that will be taken to Nigeria and other African countries. That is a concern,” he noted.
Stressing that religion was not against vaccination, Aliyu observed, “It is religiously expedient to undergo therapy and get inoculated with vaccines, but that should be based on truth and not misinformation.
“So I think we should first get credible information about the vaccine before using it in Nigeria, and the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) should tell Nigerians the true nature of the vaccines to enable people to take a decision on whether to take the vaccine or not.”
Also speaking with The ICIR, a priest and director of communications, Catholic Diocese of Enugu, Benjamin Achi, said the federal government should tread with caution on matters concerning the vaccines.
Although he noted that the emergence of the vaccine was a good development as it meant that there was now a medical response to the coronavirus pandemic, Achi added, “People are exercising caution on the use of the vaccine around the world and I think Nigeria shouldn’t be an exception.”
“The concern should not be the amount of money involved in procuring the vaccines – the concern should be the safety of the vaccine because, basically, they are still at the trial stage at the moment,” he stressed.
Continuing, the clergyman said it would not be proper to rush into introducing the vaccines in Nigeria.
“While it is not out of place to let people have the vaccine, I don’t think it is something we should rush into like that. Sometimes, the tragedy down here is that we don’t think things through before we get into it. Whatever is spent to secure life is not too much because life is priceless, but I think we need to exercise caution,” he said.
- FG is doing the right thing in going for vaccines… Nigerian Academy of Science
However, the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS) noted that the federal government was only being reasonable in rushing to acquire the vaccines for Nigerians.
President of the NAS, Mosto Onuoha, a professor, in a chat with The ICIR, said, “Every reasonable government is trying to protect its population and all the countries of the world will not be scrambling to protect its population and then we keep quiet. I think the Federal Government is simply being proactive.”
Onuoha said it would be wrong to blame the government for rushing to acquire the vaccines, as it was not yet known when the drugs would eventually get to Nigeria.
“We have up to 200 million Nigerians. Even though we don’t know the accurate figure, we don’t expect that the vaccines will be enough to get to everybody,” he said, adding that the high number of coronavirus cases being recorded in Nigeria in recent days was linked to the highly contagious new strain of the virus in the country.
“The new variant in Nigeria is said to be more dangerous, and we are not testing enough,” he said, while justifying the rush to acquire the vaccines.
- Funds meant for vaccines should not be misappropriated
Rather than dwell on concerns over the safety of the vaccines, the Nigerian Academy of Science president stressed that the major challenge was how to ensure a judicious use of funds meant for the purchase of the vaccines.
He also stressed the need to ensure that the access to the vaccines was not dependent on connections to people in government.
Onuoha said, “I think the major issue is to ensure that the Nigerian factor is not brought into all of these, so that any amount appropriated for purchase of vaccines will be used judiciously, and getting the vaccine does not depend on your position in the society, or on who you know. We should follow the system as it is done in other nations.”