Professor Wellington Oyibo is a consultant medical parasitologist and lead investigator, ANDI Centre of Excellence for Malaria Diagnosis, College of Medicine, University of Lagos (UNILAG). In this interview with ROYAL IBEH, he explains why the Central Bank Of Nigeria’s research and development intervention grants is a starting point in the right direction.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised African Leaders to start thinking of producing local COVID-19 vaccines. Can CBN’s Research and Development intervention grants to scientists, fast track that process in Nigeria?
The COVID-19 pandemic readily opened up our weakness in local production platform with very slow or no response to repurpose manufacturing plants. Plants with good manufacturing practices (GMPs) are still few but for some Pharma industries.
However, the intervention of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is very commendable, especially, at this time where basic research and translational research are desired. Apart from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) that drives the national Research Fund in the last five years, no national funding scheme is available to promote local knowledge production for healthcare research.
While this is a laudable step, there should be consistence and not an ad hoc plan. We should be looking at a mega 5-year plan by the CBN to make very significant impact, for the Nigerian scientists to be able to produce the vaccine locally.
Already, the CBN has awarded the sum of N253.54 million grants to five researchers under its Healthcare Sector Research and Development Intervention Scheme (HSRDIS). Pipeline funding in this remit should also be considered knowing that a single research may not have the translational impetus. Added to this, is the review process that should be robust and rich-feedback provided as is done elsewhere. The proposal in this category should indicate the clear direction for product validation etc.
The missing component from the CBN Intervention, however, is the support for Centres of Excellence that can drive basic-translational research in biologics/vaccine, diagnostics and drug research to validation and implementation. These could be in areas of infectious diseases/tropical diseases, establishment of biobanks for diseases etc and clinical trials.
What are the procedures involved in local production of COVID-19 vaccines?
Similarly The procedures required for COVID-19 vaccines relies on the support of basic research to manufacturing. Virology Laboratories with genomic and bioinformatics capacities will feed into the already existing Vaccine production facility in Lagos, Nigeria. This facility requires upgrade and a long pipeline, understanding that will promote private-public partnerships.
Where is Nigeria, when it comes to local production of COVID-19 vaccines?
Vaccine research and development is expensive and a pipeline development with sustained and intentional funding is required. However, with profiling, low hanging platform with some capacities could be identified and exist for good funding. These have to be funded and research platform upgraded. For now, that research platform does not exist fully to contribute. You do not wake up overnight to do this kind of work. Mind you, the capacity for vaccine would require trajectory and experience. Nevertheless, with good collaboration, the appropriate technology transfer can be used to drive the process.
There is a Vaccine production facility in Yaba, Lagos. Funds should be injected deliberately after considering a sustainable plan. Nigeria is over due to producing vaccines and the researchers can collaborate with the facility to produce their lead targets. The Vaccine production centre can also provide capacity building in collaboration with selected universities to produce critical mass that will also work with research platforms. Vaccinology capacity must be driven deliberately to fully prepare the country to function in the knowledge domain and compete continentally and globally.
What are your advice to Government, scientists on local production of vaccines?
My advice will be first to the CBN Committee. Provide long-term, sustained funding for the next five years. A Call for Centres or Platform with some capacities could be profiled for funding. Appropriate infrastructure and funding stream that permits collaboration support and post-doctoral positions can accelerate this process for the future. This may not be immediate but platforms must be established for healthcare research and development (diagnostics, biologics and drugs) in the country and preferably located in universities.
The scientists are ready but the funding pathway must be encouraging and clearly pipeline-based for impact.
Looking beyond COVID-19 is the way forward as the platforms can assess vaccine safety, modifications to rare variants that exists in the country and for other diseases as well. This is how you prepare for war, long preparation (planning, funding, training, collaborative network development etc). Preparation at the time of war is usually problematic and may not be immediately useful but important to be initiated.