Two years after the global outbreak of coronavirus, and its associated disease known as COVID-19, Nigeria’s food and drug regulatory agency, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) finally got certification for the attainment of Maturity Level Three Regulatory agency by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This certification would enable the agency to regulate and help to midwife the local production of vaccines, including the much-needed COVID-19 vaccines.
Generally, vaccines are biological preparations that provide active acquired immunity against a particular infectious disease. Vaccines typically contain an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe, its toxins, or one of its surface proteins. This agent in turn stimulates the body’s immune system to recognise the agent as a threat, destroy it, and to further recognise and destroy any of the microorganisms associated with that agent that it may encounter in the future. Vaccines can be prophylactic (these vaccines are administered to individuals as a precautionary measure to avoid the infection) or therapeutic (these vaccines are administered after the individual has already been affected by the infection). Some vaccines offer full sterilising immunity, in which infection is prevented completely.
However, Nigeria does not have a functional vaccine production facility in place. The only laboratory for human vaccine production is at Yaba in Lagos, and has not been functional for many years now and will require a lot of money to revamp it and increase its production capacity. In addition to this, it will also need to be staffed with people who have the requisite expertise and experience in modern technology for the production of safer and more efficacious vaccines. And just as the Project Manager of Nigeria COVID-19 Research Coalition (NCRC), Professor Poopola Mustapha recently said, about $500 million is required for research and development in the health sector, adding that the proposition by the African Union (AU) “is that countries should set aside one per cent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a contribution for research and development (R&D).
Professor Mustapha, in his words, also said, “Our National GDP is $500 billion and one per cent of this is $5 billion. Presently, the highest grant portfolio for research is around $20 million. The health sector is in the requirement of nothing less than $500 million yearly to have concrete research that could be of impact on the economy.”
Meanwhile, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), is an intervention agency whose primary goal is providing support for research and development in tertiary institutions and other health parastatals in the areas of medical research, as well as the provision of facilities for the treatment of major ailments.
Once again, the agency has joined this major move of COVID-19 vaccine production in Nigeria and has already committed N450 million to support the process, and for the first time in the country, the agency is capitalising on research and development that has an interface between the government, private sector and the academia.
Before now, TETFund has mainly concentrated on funding research and development in the tertiary education sector, but this time around, it has brought together five institutions that are having real-time business in terms of the development of vaccines in the country, using the COVID-19 model.
The institutions, which are NlMR, National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI) Usman Danfodio University, Sokoto, University of Jos and NIPRD, will all be working together to look at the reagents component of what is needed so that an effective and up to standard COVID-19 vaccine can be produced locally.
Moving forward, while sustainable funding remains the main public policy intervention for revamping Nigeria’s vaccine production capacity, I strongly think there should be annual budgetary allocations to the health sector concerning this. But on the very positive note, following NAFDAC’s certification, TETFund’s generous monetary intervention and the wise combination of the five research institutions working together, it is safe to say that Nigeria will soon have a locally produced COVID-19 vaccine to its name.
Oladosu writes from Abuja.