August 15, 2021

NICAFE 2021: Eight experts make case for post-COVID-19 era

Third-wave: Nigeria at high risk of surge in COVID cases ― NCDC Boss

By Oyinloluwa Alalade

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Coronavirus Disease-19 (COVID-19) a pandemic in March 2020, the spread of the virus has changed our lives.

In Nigeria, following the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in February 2020, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the country’s national public health institute, has led the ongoing response to the pandemic, working collaboratively with other Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).

In addition, under the leadership of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (now the Presidential Steering Committee), a multi-sectoral, whole-of-society approach was adopted to respond to the outbreak.  Amid this response, NCDC has also been simultaneously responding to other endemic disease outbreaks such as Lassa fever, yellow fever, cholera and monkeypox.

Aimed at strengthening emergency preparedness and response to events of public health importance, NCDC organised the Nigerian Conference of Applied and Field Epidemiology (NiCAFE 2021) themed ‘Building Back Better: COVID-19 and other Disease Outbreaks’. The conference gathered scientists and public health experts from diverse fields including epidemiology, laboratory science, healthcare, research, data analysis, the public and private sector to reflect on lessons from the response to disease outbreaks in Nigeria to gain insights that would enable gaps to be identified that would strengthen our national health security.

The conference also brought together extraordinary panelists to speak on diverse topics including in the fields of epidemiology, national and regional health security and vaccine research and development.

The first distinguished speaker, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the WHO delivered a keynote lecture on the conference theme, reflecting on lessons learnt in the areas of research, crisis communication, development and equitable access to vaccine, therapeutics and diagnostics among many others in the response to the pandemic.

Building on her lecture, theDirector-General of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Professor Babatunde Salako reiterated the importance of clinical research to inform decision making in the public health response to disease outbreaks. Reflecting on challenges faced by research during the response citing the case study of the Nigeria COVID-19 Research Consortium (NCRC) which was established by the NCDC in collaboration with NIMR. He highlighted the need for increased research funding, increased trust in local researchers and scientists, capacity building to conduct phase 1 & 2 clinical trials, the synergy between academia, industries and government and resolution of roadblocks from procurement and regulatory bodies. He called for cross-border collaborations of international organisations, MDAs, academia, researchers, and industries in vaccine development to enable effective preparation for future outbreaks.

Another valuable speaker at the conference was Professor FolasadeOgunsola, the Chairperson of the Infection Control Africa Network (ICAN). She expressed her passion for mitigating healthcare worker infections during large outbreaks. Globally, 10% of COVID-19 cases were healthcare workers with over 17,000 deaths, 15 months later. She highlighted that the 21-22% increased risk rate of healthcare worker infection is associated with deficiencies in administrative, engineering and environmental controls, inappropriate use or lack of proper personal, protective equipment (PPE) etc. She reiterated the need to be intentional about having a systematic and targeted approach to healthcare worker safety to mitigate the risk of infection.

Professor Akin Abayomi, the Lagos State Honourable Commissioner for Health, who has been frontline in the response to the pandemic, delivered his lecture on the importance of biosafety and biosecurity for infectious disease control in urban cities. He defined biosafety as “protecting our personnel from pathogens in medical infrastructures” while biosecurity as “protecting the community from dangerous pathogens”. He highlighted the importance for any government to have a biosecurity roadmap to be effectively prepared for the imminent risk due to the increasing damage to the environment and urged leaders to establish strategic systems to strengthen health system resilience in tandem with national health security.

Kickstarting day 2 of the conference, with a lecture on the role of regional health institutes in the prevention, detection and response to infectious disease outbreaks, Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control stated that “Regional collaboration and cooperation is crucial as this is the backbone of health security in Africa.” He emphasised the need for public health emergency preparedness to mitigate the impact of outbreaks on social lives and economic activities. He also called for a strengthened and competent public health workforce. He concluded, “To build back better, bolder and bigger, we have to expand vaccine manufacturing, laboratory diagnostics, therapeutics and action-oriented partnerships in the African region”.

Dr Akindele Adebiyi, the President-Elect of, International Epidemiological Association spoke on the relatedness of socio-economic factors with disease exposure control and its application in outbreaks complexities. He stated that “Exposure to hazards depends on social positions and inadvertently the vulnerability level which is directly proportional to risk and dictates the consequences of outbreaks for the society”. In conclusion, he emphasised the importance of true community participation in building community resilience and the need to factor participation into our public health response.

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The Managing Director of the Aliko Dangote Foundation, MsZoueraYoussoufou started her lecture by acknowledging the absence of the private sector’s involvement and funding required to tackle health security challenges. According to MsYoussoufou, the Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) resulted from a realistic view that the COVID-19 crisis impacted everyone’s lives. There are no specific answers to ensuring the involvement of the private sector, but there is a need for the health sector to understand what drives the private sector, to enable closer collaboration.

Dr Richard Hatchett, the Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in his lecture shared the good news of the progressive reduction in the timeline for vaccine development, such as was observed for the COVID-19 vaccine development. He however highlighted inequity in access to vaccines that need to be addressed. In 2020, CEPI in collaboration with NCDC and other major stakeholders launched the largest ever Lassa fever research study to understand the epidemiology of Lassa fever. The collaboration resulted in 3 Lassa fever vaccines currently going through clinical trials. To conclude, Dr Richard encouraged all stakeholders to aim for the goal of achieving equitable manufacturing capability, development, access and distribution of vaccines.

At the NiCAFE2021, the overall idea-sharing and views of the post-covid era from scientists and professionals at global, regional, and country levels have provided the opportunity to brainstorm strategies to build back better in various aspects of global health and health system strengthening. The insights from this would aid Nigeria to strengthen her public health capacity and effectively prepare for and manage future disease outbreaks and events of public health importance.

Oyinloluwa Alalade, is a Scientific Officer II at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, Abuja