By Charles Onunaiju
LAST September, the Federal Government through the Presidential Task Force, PTF, on COVID-19 was given the sample of the first COVID-19 vaccine by a delegation headed by the Russian ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Alexey Sherbashin. The sample of the then, newly developed and first vaccine, Russian made Sputnik-V was handed over to Nigeria’s authorities with a guiding aide memoir to enable the Nigerian medical and regulatory bodies to conduct further study on the vaccine sample.
Nearly eight months after, nothing has been heard from the Nigerian authorities about Sputnik-V. The Russian ambassador who presented the vaccine sample has suggested, then, that Nigeria may consider to put together an expert team to collaborate with the Russian side for possible clinical trials of the vaccine.
There was no evidence in the public domain to indicate that the Nigerian authorities initiated a response for a trial of the efficacy or otherwise of the Russian made Sputnik-V vaccines. Despite that a research article published in September last year in the highly-rated UK-based science journal, The Lancet acknowledged that Sputnik-V passed early trials conducted on patients, as it helped developed anti-bodies without causing any serious side effects, the Nigerian managers of the COVID-19 pandemic maintained complete aloofness to the first developed vaccines against the pandemic despite having been fully briefed by the Russians and provided with samples and other accessories that would enable a scientific study of the vaccine.
Despite making no effort at instituting indigenous efforts at vaccine development, Nigerian authorities, especially the COVID-19 pandemic managers, were dutifully waiting for the West to make a breakthrough with the vaccine development. With the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines developed in the US and UK respectively, Nigeria’s pandemic managers cheered enthusiastically in a sheepish neo-colonial context, and were waiting sheepishly to receive the vaccines. The Pfizer vaccines which needed a certain condition of temperature storage and which the Nigeria’s elite managers of the COVID-19 pandemic did not have, were dutifully by-passed on account of inadequate storage facility.
Since the arrival of the first batch of Astra-Zeneca vaccines which were actually manufactured in India, subsequent batches have been held back because India has had the highest rate of infections and is keeping the vaccines for its domestic uses. However, in a compelling irony that would bother Nigeria’s managers of COVID-19 pandemic, India has approved the use of Russian-made Sputnik vaccines for use as way to diversify their basket of available vaccines.
The India which we wait on endlessly to supply other batches of vaccines and which is currently contending with the unfortunate surge in COVID-19 infections and death may not likely deliver any more batches on schedules. At the middle of March, India’s authority announced a temporary ban on exports of its Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccines, in a move that was considered to jeopardise global vaccine supplies, but the action given the surge of the pandemic in India is understandable. The shock is that Nigeria’s COVID-19 managers pretended as if they do not know that India would not be supplying the vaccines for the nearest future.
In addition to the Russian sputnik vaccine, China has developed and approved four vaccines against COVID-19 for general use. The vaccines, developed and approved by the Chinese relevant authority, include Sinovac, Sinopharm, CanSino and Biologics. Several countries signed a deal with Sinovac, including Singapore, Malaysian, the Philippines and Turkey while UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and several other African countries have approved Sinoparm.
In fact, according to the Chinese government, the country has provided vaccines assistance to 69 countries and two international organisations and exported vaccines to 28 countries, including several European countries. The Chinese government has provided vaccines to more than 35 African countries. Pakistan, that has a population of 210 million, has received one million doses of Chinese vaccine as donation and placed an order for seven million doses on concessionary negotiated prices. Egypt has just placed an order for 20 million doses of Sinopharm vaccines from China.
That Nigeria which has very warm and friendly relationship with China has ignored the Chinese made vaccines while ostensibly waiting in vain for the Oxford-India AstraZeneca vaccines is both curious and surprising. While Nigeria is most likely to receive a certain amount of doses free of charge from both China and Russia and also negotiate a more favourable price, the focus on the costly AstraZeneca vaccines despite the international controversy trailing it, raises question about the reason for the vaccine discrimination currently in practice by the Nigerian authorities.
As in everything Nigerian, is it that vested and special interests have constrained the relevant authorities from broadening our vaccines basket, so that we can have the best deal in terms of cost and availability. The Kingdom of Morocco is going into joint venture with the Chinese to manufacture Sinoparm, just as the British Oxford licensed the India Serum Institute to manufacture AstraZeneca for which we are waiting diligently. Vaccines have been the traditional and most efficient therapy in containing pandemics and Nigeria is not a stranger to vaccines, with the latest being polio vaccines.
With the campaign on COVID-19 vaccination still epileptic with just about 3.4 million doses available for over 200 million people, it is instructive that Nigeria takes a bold step further to assess other international recognised vaccines. For the avoidance of doubt, the Chinese makers of Sinoparm and SinoVac vaccines have presented data of their COVID-19 vaccines to the World Health Organisation Strategic Advisory Group of Experts, SAGE, and whose chair, Mr. Alejandro Cravioto said at a news briefing that the samples “the companies shared at the SAGE meeting clearly indicates that they have a level of efficiency that would be compatible with the requirement that WHO has asked for this vaccine.” The two Chinese made vaccines are expected to be given an official imprimatur of approval before the end of April.
Why would the Nigeria relevant regulatory authority, including the Presidential task force, stuck to the AstraZeneca vaccines that is not forthcoming and even the America Johnson & Johnson that has run into the storm of controversy.
While the covax process of accessing vaccine remains a veritable option, Nigeria is considerably significant to enter into direct contact with makers of vaccines with a view to negotiate favourable costs and a more efficient delivery mechanism. If funds are available as it is suggested, tying the country to the bureaucracy of the Covax process may not only be cumbersome but may not be cost effective.
The seeming vaccine discrimination by the Nigeria managers of the Covid-19 pandemic is an ill wind that blows no good to the country and may actually be playing to the pockets of special and vicious vested interests that have traditionally ambushed the best and well-intentioned public policy, causing the country to look big for nothing externally while undermining and eroding citizen’s trusts of government, domestically.