Prof Wale Tomori is the chairman, board of directors, Biovaccines Nigeria Limited (BVNL), a joint venture between May & Baker Nigeria Plc and the Federal Government through the Federal Ministry of Health to produce vaccines for the eradication of child killer diseases in the country. In this interview with ODIRI UCHENUNU-IBEH, he explains why it will take three to four years for Nigeria to produce its own vaccines.
Biovaccines production is very complex, when are you likely to produce your own vaccines?
Vaccine production is a highly technical and complex technology which requires time to perfect. Usually a green field project will require five to eight years gestation period, but we cannot wait that long. We are engaging our experts and relevant government agencies to see how we can shorten this process without compromising quality. It is our hope that we can achieve production within the next three to four years. As a private and independent company, Biovaccines is not encumbered by any bureaucracy and so, we are confident that with the expected cooperation from government, the management of the company will move swiftly to achieve our goals in record time.
A green field project, like you said requires five to eight years gestation period, and Biovaccines is assuring Nigerians that it can achieve local vaccine production in the next three to four years, how is that possible?
We are not the first vaccine manufacturer in the world, the vaccines that we have been using, others have been manufacturing it and there is no way we are going to work alone because we are working in partnership with other people. Those people we are partnering with us are already producing vaccines and so our partnership includes getting some of what they are producing and finishing up in Nigeria before we move on to producing our own vaccines here in Nigeria. So, that explains the three years first and then eight years later phase.
We already have a structure at Otta, Ogun state for the production of vaccines, but we cannot wait till eight years before producing vaccines for Nigerians since we already have partnership with people who are producing vaccines. So, in the next three years, we are going to work with our partners. We all know that vaccine production has so many stages. Some of the stages would be done in this country including the final stage and that account for the three to four years.
What kind of vaccines will you be producing and for what category of people?
We cannot work in isolation. We have to look at what is existing in the world, who is producing what vaccines, how soon are they producing it? Then we also have to find out what are our peculiar problems in the country that nobody is producing vaccines for. We are going to study our country and look at what others are not producing and then produce those vaccines, but most importantly, vaccines that would affect the lives of our children, become a priority for us.
What are the advantages for Nigeria producing its own vaccines?
One of the advantages is that we will have health security and it is a national pride that we are producing our own vaccine. This is something we should all look forward to. It will also help provide employment for Nigerians and the issue of foreign exchange will no longer affect us because we will not be purchasing the vaccines again from foreign countries, since we are producing it locally. This is a win-win situation for everybody, for the government, for May and Baker and for Nigerians at large.
How can this project be sustained?
When we talk about sustainability, May and Baker has been doing business before anyone of us as board members was born and they have not folded up despite the economic situation in the country. If they can stand till now, I am very sure they can even do better in terms of the vaccine production.
What are the challenges that the board has faced so far?
The challenges that we face also lead to the problem of why it has taken Nigeria so long to produce her own vaccine. Let us be frank with each other, in this country, we have a problem and that is the issue of good governance. If you remove good governance from anything you are doing, you cannot achieve anything and that is why Africa is the way it is. The fact that we are begging the world to solve our problems for us, is an issue of good governance.
If you have good governance, then we are talking about accountability, integrity and sustainability and then we won’t be where we are today. The production of vaccines would have started long ago, but because of changing of government, it has stunted the progress. So part of our challenges is our challenge as a nation and as individuals and it affects everything we do, not just vaccine production.
Is the present administration in support of this project?
Yes, we have gotten the commitment of the present government. We have gotten 100 percent corporation from this government. We have been on this vaccine production for years, but as soon as this government came in, we took it back to them and in less than two years, they gave the go ahead. This is something we have not been able to do for the past 10 years but here we are today. This government has shown extreme commitment to working with us.
I am quite happy that the government is choosing its own members; it did not follow the old pattern of selecting people who are not in the field. The government came up with the right choice of stakeholders in the health sector. So, with this present administration, we were able to address some of the challenges we would have faced in the future. This has really helped us to ensure that we don’t fail just as the old vaccine production failed.
The federal government has been of great help to the production of the vaccines, the building we are using was given to us by the government and so many ways that the federal government is contributing to ensure that we succeed. More importantly, we have that commitment from the government that whatever the Biovaccine produces will be purchased by them.
What is your advice to some Nigerians who are in hurry to see the country producing its own vaccines?
As a board, we want to assure Nigerians that we are not taking this assignment lightly and will do everything to deliver their expectations. However, we shall take calculated steps to ensure we get everything right. This means that we are not only working to give Nigerians locally produced vaccines of the highest quality and that these are done in a sustainable manner. We have resolved that no product of Biovaccines will harm Nigerians. This is the sacred creed of the board members, to which all workers will subscribe from the chief executive to the gatekeeper.
In a bid to ensure we get things right the first time, I wish to inform you that we are working with our foreign technical team comprising of international experts in vaccines and biological technology to develop and implement a robust business plan. I want Nigerians to know that something different is coming out of the country, but we must learn to be patient, if we rush into this vaccine without putting things in the proper perception, we may fail. We need to learn to wait patiently and do things the right way and that is why we want to ensure that this time, we succeed.