Professor Oyewale Tomori, a professor of Virology, is a man described as a scientist who does not care ‘whose ox is being gored’ when it comes to speaking about the health situation in Nigeria.
Anytime Tomori thinks of Nigeria, he cries, because he thinks he owes the country a lot. “I have wept for this country on several occasions, I will try not to do such again, but it looks like I am failing because I owe this country much more than I can pay back,” he explained.
Tomori grew up during the time when Nigeria had a good government. “That was the government of Obafemi Awolowo, who introduced free primary education, and compulsory, which meant if you didn’t send your child to school, the alternative was prison.
“So my father actually preferred to send me to school than go to prison. That is how I started my academic journey. Good governance made a difference in my life and I am very proud of my country.
“I never studied outside this country. All my education was here. Of course, when you want to do a postdoc, you go out to another country. But basically all of my study was done in this country. And the country provided the enabling environment for all that to happen. And that’s why I said, you know, sometimes I keep saying that, I owe this country more than I can ever pay back. But the generation now can’t say that because the country has abandoned them,” Tomori explained the reason behind his tears.
But he is not just sitting down to weep and not do anything about the dilapidated state of the health sector. As a matter of fact, he has dedicated all his life to contributing immensely to improving the wellbeing of Nigerians and Africans at large.
Born in Ilesa, Osun state, on 3rd February 1946, Tomori received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine(DVM) from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria as well as a Doctorate degree, Ph.D in virology from the University of Ibadan, Oyo state, where he was appointed professor of virology in 1981, the same year he received the United States Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Service Certificate for contributions to Lassa Fever Research.
Tomori went on from those university days to occupy various positions of authority, including the vice chancellorship of a University, and the presidency of the Nigerian Academy of Science. He has acquired big international footprints as an academic researcher and occupies a position of distinction as Nigeria’s preeminent virologist.
He is acknowledged as a world authority on the many viral afflictions that plague Africa, such as Ebola, Lassa Fever, Yellow Fever, and Monkey Pox.
At 74, Professor Oyewale Tomori is the leading virologist who helped spearhead Nigeria’s efforts to kick polio out of the country, a feat that was accomplished in June 2020 after decades of efforts.
A multiple-award-winning specialist in human, zoonotic and veterinary viruses including the poliomyelitis virus and immediate-past president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, his journey of achieving that feat started when he was appointed as the Regional Virologist for the WHO Africa Region in 1994 where he set up the African Regional Polio Laboratory Network, a first-of-its-kind system of laboratories that provided diagnostic expertise to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). He was subsequently appointed as the chairman of the Nigeria Expert Review Committee on Polio Eradication and Routine Immunization in 2004 to date, a high-stakes role where he was charged with ensuring Nigeria defeats polio at all costs.
‘Eradicating Polio in Nigeria was a battle i fought with undiluted passion,’ he added.
During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tomori was called upon by the world to help analyse, understand, and cage the virus. Presently, despite the fact that he is advanced in age, Tomori has dedicated his time and energy in ensuring that Nigeria starts local production of vaccines.
When asked where the country is, in terms of local production of vaccines, Tomori told me that, Nigeria supposed to have done groundbreaking opening ceremony of the vaccine facility, but the plan got shifted because of the extension of GAVI’s support for Nigeria in terms of vaccines.
“Nigeria supposed to graduate out of the GAVI support in 2021, but in 2018, that graduation was extended to 2028, hence the entire business plan that Biovaccines had in 2018, was thrown under the box. We had to go back to the federal government, got the details of the extended graduation and based on that, developed a new business plan,” Tomori stated.
Unlike what it was previously in 2021, when Nigeria was supposed to graduate 100 per cent off GAVI’s support, Tomori disclosed that, “what it is now is a staggered graduation, meaning, we are graduating product by product. By 2024 for instance, we will be graduating off support for Penta vaccine. It means Nigeria will be procuring Penta vaccine, 100 per cent with its money.
“This staggered plan is what we have now built into our business plan and did a funding provision for 10 years, to enable us have a bankable business case which we will then use to approach our funding partners. We are waiting for the Federal Executive Council’s approval of this new plan, to enable us activate the first phase of the project.”
The day Nigeria starts producing its own vaccines for its citizens would be a milestone in the health sector and one of my happiest day, Tomori said, ‘I cannot wait to see that day.’