For about 30 years, the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), an agency under the Federal Ministry of Health, has remained moribund until the Director-General Dr. Obi Adigwe assumed office in 2018. Until his appointment, he was the executive secretary of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMGMAN), former head of the Health Policy Research and Development (HPRD) Unit at the National Assembly (NASS), and one of few Nigerians who did a Knowledge, Attitude and Practice (KAP) Study on the Ebola outbreak in 2014. In this interview with OLUGBENGA ADANIKIN, he spoke on ongoing efforts to developing a local cure for COVID-19 pandemic, how more than 40 nations have been patronising a local medicine developed by NIPRD for Sickle Cell Anaemia as well as funding challenges confronting the institute. Excerpts:
Nigerians are desirous of witnessing locally-made COVID-19 vaccines. What significant achievement has been made in this direction?
We are probably the organisation that has made the most impact in COVID-19 research and development (R&D) in the whole of Africa and I can back up my statement with evidence. Even before COVID-19 hit the shores of Nigeria on February 27, last year, the institute had put together a high-powered task team that looked at the gaps in the responses in other countries and tried to predict how we could provide homegrown solutions to prevent those kinds of deleterious scenarios in Nigeria. I am sure if you go on the internet to check, you will notice that within a few days of COVID-19 entering Nigeria, the minister of health invited us to launch our concept developed hand sanitisers at the Ministry of Health.
Before that time, the majority of hand sanitisers sold in Nigerian markets were imported. And you are aware, COVID-19 disrupted all international supply chains. What that meant is that even in developed countries in Europe, the US had empty shelves where they should have had live-saving sanitizers as a tool for disrupting the spread of the virus. So, what we did was to develop hand sanitisers made of locally sourced materials, then proceeded to share the formula of those hand sanitisers as much as possible to local manufacturers who were interested in producing hand sanitisers. And that was one of the reasons you did not see those kinds of empty shelves in Nigeria, as witnessed in Europe.
Also, few months into the pandemic, we had the COVID-organics claimed to be a cure for the virus. Before those products were let into the Nigerian populace, President Muhammadu Buhari had said no phytomedicine products would be released into the population unless NIPRD undertook the analysis of that product. The analysis on that COVID-organic preparation was done in our laboratory and our result on that particular product is the reason a lot of lives were saved. It means that a product that could not cure COVID-19 was not used by the populace. Secondly, millions of dollars were conserved because rather than spending money buying a product that lacks efficacy against the virus, you could channel the money to research and development, and procurement of other products. We undertook the first categorical analysis for the product in the whole world, checking the purity.
We discovered the product had two other constituents, including a synthetic sweetener. We correctly identified Artemisia Annua in that product and we even compared the Artemisia Annua we saw with the one we grow here in NIPRD. We identified that the product had expectorant properties, but our analysis could not validate that it could cure COVID-19. We were able to submit a full dossier to the minister of health who commissioned us to do the work. So, if you check online, you will see that our report went viral both in English and French and a lot of policymakers used our evidence to make policy decisions in that area.
We have also been able to identify other plants which grow in Nigeria, including Andrographis paniculata. We were the first to put forward the hypothesis that this particular product (Niprimune) could have some activities against COVID-19. Based on our profiling of the product in the pre-clinical test, we put forward that hypothesis and actually gone forward to get this particular product listed by NAFDAC.
The fact that NIPRD had undertaken tests, in terms of safety and other parameters, prior to the listing of this product, is validating some of the results we have got here. We have gone further to put processes to ensure we can start undertaking the clinical trial for this product as against COVID-19.
Are you saying your solution can cure COVID-19?
I can’t say it can cure until we have finished the clinical trials. It is a clinical trial that will determine exactly what that particular substance will do to the human body that has COVID-19 in it. And that is the step we are herein. When we say it could have an activity, it means it could have an in-vitro test, meaning tests inside test tubes. And we have also done pre-clinical tests – tests with animals. And some of the profiles you are seeing indicate it may have activity against COVID-19, but you cannot categorically say that a product can cure COVID-19 until you finish your clinical trial. So, Niprimune’s listing by NAFDAC simply means is that I can legally give you the product and you can legally buy the product in the market and take it as either a preventive or an adjunct to whatever you are taking because it has empirical evidence that it boosts the immune system. What you cannot legally do is to say this product cures COVID-19 until you finish your clinical test.
Is there any international certification to validate Niprimune as a boost to the immune system against COVID-19?
Yes. I have world-class scientists here in NIPRD, close to eight professors, and over 70 Master’s holders and PhDs. NIPRD is the most resourced institute of its kind in this part of the world. We are all aggregated through the entire pharmacy value chain and the studies we have done have been published in peer-review journals. This implies that your contemporaries in other parts of the world have interrogated your science and looked at how you arrived at your findings, and have agreed that your results are actually provable from the methods you used. But, even further than that, it would interest you to know that shortly after we came up with our postulations, scientists in Thailand have started using the tea from this particular plant in the management of COIVD-19. This is called triangulation in the world of science. Scientists working on the same plant in different parts of the world, coming independently to similar results are also validation to the work we are doing. So, ours is in a capsule. A capsule is more sophisticated but theirs is in form of tea. So, they did not adopt our technology but they independently came to a similar conclusion as we did because they also made their tea from Andrographis paniculata.
What’s the common name of the plant?
It is not a common plant like Ugwu, Neem, or bitter leave. I won’t be able to tell you that but a lot of people in the science world are familiar with it.
During the outbreak, the Ooni of Ife came up with some local herbs and presented them as capable of curing the virus. Has there been any discovery from his submission?
He wrote us recently, indicating that he had several interventions. We have not received any samples from Ooni yet. So, I cannot say we have started validating his particular product but the engagement is in terms of him communicating with us. We have definitely communicated with him. I have also spoken to him on a number of occasions, and more importantly, the Ooni partnered with us when we went to train phytomedicinal practitioners in Osun state, which I believe is his terrain. We identified that for a long time despite the potentials of the herbal medicine sector, and 70 percent of Nigerians still depending on herbal cures, and it’s an industry that could be used to provide jobs, incomes, it has been neglected. So, we said, we will no longer seat in our five-story building in Abuja, and wait for people to come to us. So, what we did was redesign our engagement program, developed a phytomedicinal training program, and started the training across the states. So, Osun was one of the states where we trained almost 100 practitioners. Though the Ooni was not present he sent delegates who delivered papers. And this is a strong indication of his commitment to developing herbal medicines.
So, do any of the herbs so far submitted have the potentials of becoming a cure?
I cannot answer except those particular products are subjected to laboratory analysis. What we went to do was to build the capacity of the practitioners. If you look at the herbal medicine space, you realised there are two broad categories that need to be developed. First, the product, and secondly, the capacity of the practitioners. They go hand-in-hand. The practitioners need to understand the value of the knowledge they are custodians. They need to know how to mainstream those products because if you are seating in your village in Osun state, you visit the bush and give to people in your community, you might be serving just 100 people but they need to understand modern conservation techniques where they could own a garden to cultivate those plants. On one hand, they have a sustainable supply of phytomedicine.
They need to subject those herbs to rigorous scientific analysis that will document and prove the concept that he has been practicing. Based on that, he can apply for NAFDAC listing and registration. So, instead of serving 100 people, that product can serve millions of people in Abuja, Lagos, London, New York, etc. So, the training we did was for beginners’ level, we will still do the intermediate and advanced level. In each of the states, we have an exhibition. In Kwara for instance, we had an exhibition, the governor and senator representing the constituency went round and identified a product where there will be a potential for business partnership.
What is the process involved to get NIPRD analyse herbal drugs with intention of securing NAFDAC listing?
If you visit the NIPRD website, NIPRD is always open to consultancy requests. If you develop a product and you feel the product can cure COVID-19, you do not need to see me. Download the form from the website, fill it, submit a sample, pay the price and that particular product will be analysed, based on indications you said it has. So, that is always there and has always been there. A lot of people have brought products and we have analysed them. We are always available for analysing but the analysis is not cheap. For every product you submit, we provide a catalog of tests needed to be done. Reagents, animals need to be bought and various activities need to be budgeted for. We have also found out that sometimes, the true cost of that analysis is what prohibits a lot of these practitioners from bringing their products forward. Hence, the reason for training and the invitation of governors, because we believe that phytomedicine knowledge does not only belong to the practitioners but Nigerians. And we have been saying this for so long. And I thank you for lending your platform for us to send this message out. People who have the funding should come forward and support the work we do at NIPRD. Nothing prevents your partners in the oil and gas industry to support at least 10 herbal products submitted by phytomedicinal practitioners from the Niger Delta region. It’s a matter of asking NIPRD to calculate the cost it will take to analyse the products. We have also done the same for state governors, and various organisations. Unfortunately, we have not gotten any support from the development sector and philanthropists. We have not gotten the kind of philanthropic response that will indicate the level of patriotism required to move the sector forward.
How much funding have you received so far to develop local solutions, especially on COVID-19?
One of the biggest we have received recently is the N5.8 billion grant from the Japanese government to set up our Nano-technology laboratory. We have received some smaller grants from different organisations, and we have sent close to 75 research proposals to different organisations. And there are different stages of success. So, the only figure close to N10 billion we have gotten is the N5.8 billion from the Japanese government. It has nothing to do with COVID-19.
But what I can say categorically is that NIPRD focuses on science, research, and development that will enable us to use our scientists to get the most of the plants and animals in our backyard to treat the diseases that plague us. It is rather sad that the majority of the support that NIPRD has gotten is from outside Nigeria. If you look at it logically, the people who should focus on supporting NIPRD more are philanthropists whose parents, children are dying from the diseases we undertake research and development. For instance, this particular product, Niprovax, is one of the world’s most renowned phytomedicine for sickle cell anemia. Sickle Cell is a disease that plagues only black people, and one out of every five blacks you meet are Nigerians. So, the common sense should tell us that Nigerian so-called billionaires, having seen that NIPRD has the international reputation to develop this product used in over 40 countries, should be supported.
But a particular report labeled it as a failure, can you speak to that?
This particular product has a NAFDAC number. It means NAFDAC has done an independent test before giving that number. The partner you see here is May and Baker which has a pedigree of over 80 years in the pharmaceutical sector. So, you can’t have these things and you pick up a report from the internet and say it failed. The permission for NIPRD to partner with May and Baker was given at the Federal Executive Council (FEC). That is the highest level of government. So, I’ll really view that report you saw that reported this report as a failure with some concerns. I have people calling me from America, Russia, different parts of Europe on this particular product. This is the first phytomedicine that has moved from drug development to phase two clinical trials, published in peer-review journals. Take it to the bank, anywhere.
The report specifically mentioned the drug fell apart.
It is good to have these details on record. When it says it fell apart, previously as of the time this article was written, because it says 1998, it was referring to the intervention in 1998. At the time the intervention was made, the institute partnered with a foreign organisation to market NIPRISAN. So, that marketing partnership is what fell apart. And it was as a result of that marketing partnership that fell apart that the current administration gave a mandate to NIPRD to partner with a local manufacturer. So, if you go on your archive, you will see that previously, that particular product had a partner that was based in the US but the current partner we have is May and Baker. You will also see that the name that was written there was Niprisan but the new name of the product is Niclovix. This is actually an improvement. I’m not saying we are not fallible. Where we had gaps, those gaps were noted. The government made processes to address the gaps by working with the local manufacturers to address the weaknesses that were seen.
Despite these drug developments and their proclaimed efficacy, most Nigerians are unaware of their existence. Why?
They are aware.
No sir, most Nigerians do not know about your drugs.
I am stopped every time I travel. People come to me either at the airport or on the streets to say Dr. Adigwe, thank you for what you are doing for this country. Nigerians are aware. I told you we went to several states of the federation. This organisation has been existing for over 30 years. For the first time, in the past 18 months, we have gone across the country to train over 1,000 herbal medicinal practitioners.
But it is not as popular as paracetamol that people will often use as pain killers. Why?
One of the weaknesses we identified when I was appointed as the need to partner more with the industry. Incidentally, prior to my appointment as the Director-General of NIPRD, I was the executive secretary of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN). And I can tell you that based on intervention by my board chairman, we have begun a more robust partnership with the industry. As I’m speaking with you, the PMG-MAN as a body, as given the NIPRD an endowment fund of N50 million for the first time in the history of Nigeria, with 20 percent paid up for us to develop products for that particular group. It is unprecedented.
So, increasingly, a lot of those gaps have been recognised and increasingly, we are working towards addressing them. Just a few weeks ago, we held a joint webinar on how we can harness ongoing discussions for patent waivers for local vaccines manufacturing. And the keynote speaker of the event, attended by two ministers, and close to 10 officials from the Presidency was a past chairman of the PMGMAN. So, there is ongoing robust engagement to breach that gap that has existed between research and development and the industry. I am not saying we are at Uhuru yet, but, like you rightly said, for an organisation that has existed for three decades, we need to move quicker. I can assure you that what we have done in the past three years has gone significantly in trying to address the situation.
Africa seeks to produce 60 percent of all vaccines it uses by 2040, as it currently contributes less than 2 per cent of its required vaccine, what active role is NIPRD playing to drive this vision?
In terms of vaccine R&D and vaccines manufacturing, nobody has the kind of capacity that we have in NIPRD. Most other players are either aggregated downstream or upstream. We are the first player that is considering both streams at the same time. We have had not less than three international entities whose vaccines are either at phase three or phase four clinical trials, visit this institute to discuss a partnership. So that’s why I said we are looking at both the R&D which will bring up innovations in the vaccines but also how you can get those innovations in the vaccines to the man on the street because it is one thing to develop the vaccines, it is another thing to manufacture them in the quantity and format it will be ready for use by Africans. We are the only one that is looking at that entire continuum in Africa. We are having very high-level discussions. As I said, you may go online and check. I would not want to advertise some of our partnerships. If you are careful to check online in English, Spanish, and French, you will identify some world-class manufacturers that have visited us at NIPRD.
Why not just announce them?
No, you have to earn your salary…laughs. You are an investigative journalist. They have visited the institute to check the viability of partnering with us. But let me make it easier. The Russians and Cubans have been to this institute. The British have also engaged us.
NIPRD and the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) ought to be leading major medical innovations in Nigerian health system but the reverse has been the case. Why has NIPRD been laid back?
When you were here in 2019, what was the power scenario? And it will surprise you to know that majority of the changes you noticed, from the date I was appointed and today. In fact, I’ll charge you to look at the first interview I granted. They described this institute as moribund. You cannot in good conscience come in here today and say it’s moribund. I inherited seven dilapidated buildings. All seven are now refurbished and are now refurbished and good to go. The last time you came, less than 2 percent of my staff had an official IT device to do their work but as I speak with you today, all confirmed NIPRD staff has received an official IT device for their work. In 2018, the newest IT equipment was six years old. As I speak to you, between 2018 and now, this institute has received close to 100 new pieces of equipment. As of the time you came in 2018, we did not have a single product with NAFDAC certification but we now have about 20 in development. Guess what? The majority of what I told you was done by increased government funding. So, contrary to what a lot of persons believe, the entity that has supported pharmaceutical development the most since I got here is actually government. The people who have not are philanthropists and development partners. Globally, research and development are not left for the government alone. When COVID-19 hit America, despite how rich America was, that woman called Dolly Paton, a country musician donated millions of her personal money for COVID-19 research. There are Nigerian musicians who are billionaires. How much have they given for COVID-19 research? All over the world, you hear about lottery organisations, and you have lotto billionaires in Nigeria, oil billionaires.
Nigerian private entities actually made donations through CACOVID, shouldn’t that be applauded?
Well, we have written them. They have not contributed to pharmaceutical research and developments. There is a senior special adviser to the vice president that gave the best criticism. I’m paraphrasing, he said Nigerians only seem to bring out money when it comes to buying Indomie and building isolation centers but where they are meant to actually offer their donations is in research. If you invest N10 in Indomie, it remains N10 but if you invest it in R&D, that N10 becomes N100. And this is the argument we have been making. The same proposals we have written Nigerian philanthropic organisations are the same proposals that have earned us international recognition and funding supports from international partners. So, you can’t tell me it is the quality of our proposals. We have proof of concepts. But I can’t go into their pockets and bring out the money. See this product, (Niclovix), some of the most important men in Nigeria come to this our institute to get it for their children. This product came out of putting money in R&D. So, if you cannot explain to people why they need to support pharmaceutical R&D, I don’t know what else to do. But, that statement is actually the opposite of what exists. It is currently the government that has put money in pharmaceutical R&D, and when there is a huge gap, it is support and fundings from development partners.
We have seen situations where donor organisations such as USAID, EU support researches. Have you written to them?
Those guys you called, USAID for instance is the development arm of the United States government, not the development arm of the Nigerian government. And you were there during the COVID-19 outbreak when the so-called developed countries started scrambling for vaccines that are produced within their borders. Some even banned the exports of life-saving APIs to other countries. Do these people actually have your well beings in mind? That is a question for all Nigerians. That you are waiting for American, Indian, and Chinese organisations to fund NIPRD so that NIPRD will use plants from your backyard and develop phytomedicines that will be used to treat your children and parents. Does it sound like sound logic? Unless we are able to recalibrate how we think in this part of the world, we are not making progress. You cannot abdicate the responsibility for funding your development to an external partner. That is the truth but in other parts of the world, someone whose father died of prostate cancer would leave his entire wealth to prostate cancer research. I agree that government has a role but the government’s biggest role is to indicate the policy direction and this government has done so. When the COVID-organics preparation came, they said we won’t use it until NIPRD does the R&D, that is the policy direction. When they looked at the hand sanitizers that were done using locally sourced materials, they called us and launched it on television and asked us to share our formula because they know if we start producing in Nigeria instead of importing from China, India, we will employ more people and have high-quality sanitizers. That is a policy direction. We should stop the attitude of leaving everything to the government. I have just given you an example of Dolly Paton, who probably has a secondary school degree, and the lots of billionaires in Nigeria are graduates with probable PhDs. Ask them how much they have given for pharmaceutical research and development.
But it’s not their obligation. Government should fund Research and Development. Don’t you think so?
And that’s why I’m thanking you for your platform and the reason I’m pointing directly at them. It is part of that persuasion. It is for our good.
We are in the era of misinformation, to what extent has NIPRD helped burst COVID-19 misinformation in Nigeria.
I can tell you categorically that in terms of providing high valued information on COVID-19, I don’t think there are three organisations that have done more than we have done. First, a scientist’s job is to be in the laboratory bringing out world-class products. Its job is not to seat in front of the television telling you about the world-class product. But we took a strategic decision. I can tell you that I’m a painfully private person. If you see me on television, it must have been a very painful decision. But my board gave me a directive and said you must go out and let the world know what NIPRD is doing for COIVD-19. So, we took it upon ourselves, for every intervention we have in this agency, that we went out to inform Nigerians. That was the gold standard in fighting misinformation, we did not copy and paste what we were telling people. We were informing people of what came out from our laboratory. There is no higher activity to combat misinformation than what we did. Consistently on different fora, we have spoken about vaccines, phytomedicines, and the Covid-organics. Do you know what it means for something to go viral in English and French? These are raw evidence-based activities that fought misinformation and we keep doing it. I was actually the first person to undertake an Ebola KAP study during the last outbreak in Nigeria, and that was how I know the power of communication. I was telling my media friend that during the lockdown, they allowed health workers to move around and not the journalists at the first instance, I was one of the few people that fought against it because no matter how elegant your product is if the people do not know about it, it’s actually intellectual masturbation. So, I appreciate the fellowship that your sector has with my sector. And that’s why despite the fact that I am personally uncomfortable speaking publicly, I will always make myself available to update Nigerians through your platform.
Lastly, is there a timeframe as to when Niprimune would become a cure for COVID-19?
It cannot become a vaccine but it can become a phytomedicine. With research, you can’t put timeframes, unfortunately. Sometimes, you are looking at a particular line of intervention, and you have maybe 30 mice in your cohort for that pharmacology or toxicology study. If you are looking at a 28-day study and one of the mice dies off, and some other extraneous interventions, you have to start again. These are the kinds of things we undergo in the scientific community. So, we can’t really give you a timeframe but anytime we ha