We are bogged down by people who do not require test

Testing capacity increasing

Diagnosis takes up to 48 hours but we are trying to reduce timeline

Ability to flatten virus curve depends on you and me

CORONAVIRUS: We Expect Confirmed Cases to Keep Rising — Ihekweazu, NCDC DG

By Chris Onuoha

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Director-General, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, says he expects the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country to keep rising.

Ihekweazu is, however, hopeful that Nigeria would be able to manage the situation and reverse the trend.

His words, “We have crossed the hundred mark and the reality is that there is a virus circulating in our midst and that is why Mr. President came up to speak to Nigerians.

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“In the short term, we do expect the numbers to keep rising but we also expect that we will be able to get on top of this and that is why some measures were needed and we met with Mr. President.”

President Muhammadu Buhari had addressed Nigerians over the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, hours before the NCDC said the number of confirmed cases had risen to 111.

The President, in a broadcast, highlighted some of the measures put in place by the Federal Government to curtail the spread of the disease and mitigate its effect on the Nigerian economy.

He also ordered the restriction of movement in Lagos and Ogun States, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.

To Ihekweazu, the President’s decision to restrict movement, especially in Lagos and Abuja, was a tough one but necessary.

The NCDC boss urges Nigerians to cooperate with his agency and others working hard to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

“He (Buhari) took a very hard decision to make the statement he made to institute the measures he did, you will see that this is really a call on Nigerians to come together and to support these measures.

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“We know that these measures work, the challenge for us as a society are the side effects of these measures and which is why they were very difficult to make … it has not been an easy measure to carry out in Nigeria’s biggest (commercial) city and Abuja.

“We appeal to Nigerians to bear the few weeks of pain that will come. Stay at home as much as possible, unless you really really need to go out and let’s see whether we can get on top of this.

“At the moment, there is no vaccine, there are no treatments that work; so, our only hope in containing this outbreak is to prevent transmission from one individual to the other. “The way we can do this is to stop contact with each other which is very difficult, and which is why those extra measures were needed.”

He speaks more in this interview:

As of March 26, we understand that there were about 846 people that were tested. What is the latest figure?

We have tested well over 2, 000 people and we will update and continue to be transparent about the figures we give, but we have increased the number of the laboratories in our network, activating Abakaliki and Ibadan.

Every day we are improving. There is a turnaround and we have moved to a 24-hour-shift-system in Lagos and Abuja. We are maximizing the opportunity of the equipment that we have and, at the same time, rolling out new laboratories.

We also have to go round the country rolling out new labs and, unfortunately, people can’t be split into two. We are focused on and increasing the capacity of testing across the country. However, we are being bogged down by people that do not require the test. So, we also have to manage demand.

And there is no need for you if you are not showing symptoms to run around looking for a test. We appeal to people, especially those living in Lagos and the FCT if you are worried that you might have the virus, stay at home, isolate yourself or call all us if you have symptoms, and we will make come to you and we have done this to thousands of Nigerians.

But what really bogs down the system is when you find people looking for the test, and we are not able to test the people who really need the test. And we are not really improving delivery in the system.

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As long as we have limitations, we have to focus on those who really need it the most. At the same time, we going to have to increase the capacity of our testing which is what we are doing, day and night, and the new test technology which has just been approved, we have started the procurement which will be in the country in a couple of weeks. But we need Nigerians to work with us. If you are at home and you have the symptoms, you can log on to our website.

You said those who are not showing symptoms don’t need testing. But there are government officials who did not show symptoms but nevertheless got tested.

As healthcare professionals, it is very hard for those on the frontline to reject testing. In the past, some of them have come through, not just governmental officials but also those in the private sector.

The demand is so high because there is a lot of anxiety and fear. What we don’t want is somebody that is ill infecting others. So, it is a price to be paid by doing these things.

I want Nigerians to understand, when you pull out these things, don’t admit that you don’t get tested. There are those who are infected infecting others and the whole cycle continues. We will make more effort to enforce these criteria for testing and we really focus on those that need it. We need everyone to work with us. I am not going to single out anyone on this because demand is coming from everywhere, but everyone should be involved.

We are a country of about 200 million people. Lagos State Commissioner for Health said last week that if care is not taken, we will have up to 39, 000 cases and we are not unaware that NCDC is coming up with molecular testing for COVID-19. Could you tell us a little more about NCDC test centres across the nation?

Like I said earlier, we have activated Ibadan; we have to work with something that we already have to a certain level. The capacity to do molecular testing is critical. So we just completed that at the University College Hospital, Ibadan.

They have now joined the network and the Federal Medical Centre, Abakaliki also activated and, from there, we will be connecting to Kaduna, Sokoto, and Maiduguri. We have Jos also coming on stream.

These are labs that already have test kits requirements and, of course, it takes a little while to activate. The ideal thing is to have a testing centre in every state. And I think with the corporation of governors, we can get it right. We cannot achieve this overnight.

That is why we have to be patient so that we can have a sample and take it to anyone of the labs testing in any part of Nigeria. We need a lab in every state; ultimately our goal is to ensure that every Nigerian is tested within 24 hours.

How long does it take for the result of a test to come out?

Now what I call VCR molecular testing takes 6 to 7 hours. You start it small, there few processes you have to carry out and then you take it into the VCR machine and wait for another few hours.

The entire process takes up to 7 hours. So once you started the process, you really should not be interrupted. You have to plan in every lab, how many tests you can run in a day?

By doing this more efficiently, getting people to test, optimizing the process, making sure that the people, the agent, the equipment and power run 24 hours so that we can test as many samples as possible.

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The demand for the test is high and we are testing more samples. And now we have teams supporting from every single state that has Federal Medical Centre, to make sure they are a response site to save more lives and to be able to get on top of this virus.

How long do we have between the time testing begins and the time the result comes out?

That depends on many things. Sometimes when you have a sample, you have to run it for some time, but by the time the sample gets to the lab and we run all the processes, it takes up to 24 to 48 hours.

But we are working very hard to reduce the timeline. We have a backlog over the last weekend in Abuja and Lagos and we want to knock down that backlog. Our target is to get out the result fast.

This is a scenario in which you cannot give someone a result you are not sure of. We are not there yet but we will get there. Many Nigerians are used to getting malaria and typhoid fever tests result out fast and we are working towards that.

We are taking extra precautions to make sure that every sample we test, we give you quality results. When you want to have a positive result, it might take a bit longer to come but we need to be sure the result is right.

Is there a risk of getting re-infection by someone who has been freed of it before?

There are so many things that we are learning about the virus. We cannot know that now for sure until sufficient people have been infected and we follow that up for a period of time.

When some people have been infected and we follow that for a long period of time, we can now see the possibility of being infected again. There have been a few reports from Asia; it requires time because it is only then that we can know if a person who has been infected and recovered can be re-infected.

We are setting up a series of research centres in response to this issue of re-infection. One aspect of this is about learning; we are learning about the virus and people that are infected and we are also learning about the safety and other cultural and environmental factors that enable the virus.

As we are responding, we are learning. That’s why the centre is asking all Nigerians to support us. Every state is now required to set aside part of its budget for its own health security because we can’t serve all the states at the same time.

All the governors understand this and we need to work on a long term basis. We need to sustain the investments that we are making now over the next four or more years to come but the challenge at the moment is to mobilize all Nigerians with the resources that we have in the public and private sectors to test the talents that we have.

Now that there are restrictions in different parts of the country, when do we intend to flatten the curve so as to know that we are progressing in the quest to curtail the virus? And have you received the funds donated by some people?

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The ability to flatten the curve depends on you and I. We have to work very hard in the next few weeks to carry out the tests that we are talking about.

It can be very difficult but people have to realise to stay at home and keep all those necessary measures to stay safe. We can flatten that curve by how much we as a society take it seriously and make the sacrifices that we need to make right now.

The funds…

We are really grateful for the outpouring of support coming from across the country. The private sector has really stepped up and, in many cases, they are organizing themselves and looking for ways to support us.

To us, it is the best mechanism. We are not actually asking for transfer of funds into government or the agency but we are asking the private sector to come together and organise themselves, identify problems and help the Federal Government. This is going on across the country as individuals support the efforts being made by state governors.

Mr. President, in his broadcast, announced measures to support the various aspects of our lives, the Central Bank of Nigeria, on its part, also announced several measures to support ordinary Nigerians; there is a lot we can do.

We have people at home and now is the time to really carry out activities that can help the citizens. If you know people or family members struggling to live, please let’s come together and support them with whatever we can.

The most important thing is the ability to come together to support each other. Once there is any type of disturbance in our society, even if we bring out a fund to support them, it becomes a problem.

We don’t want it to happen. We need to have the space to work and support the people that need it over the next few weeks to enable us to survive.

  • Interview first aired on Channels Television
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