• Inoculation rate is 3% amid raging virus
• Experts fear emergence of more Covid-19 variants, say only improved vaccination can stop them
By Chioma Obinna
Last Wednesday, Nigerians woke up with the news of a new COVID-19 variant which the World Health Organisation, WHO, has christened Omicron.
Uncertainty has beclouded the world as scientists are yet to understand how dangerous the new mutant could be and if the already produced vaccines will still be effective.
As of Thursday, December 2, 2021, WHO said the Omicron variant was now in 20 countries, Nigeria inclusive.
Meanwhile, scientists around the world are racing to solve the confusion dogging the capabilities of the variant. No one seems to know if it can re-infect survivors or can cause severe illness in victims.
Countries like Nigeria with weak health systems may be in for the worst if nothing is done to increase the number of vaccinated persons with three per cent vaccination rate.
This may not be unconnected with the immediate adjustment to the country’s travel restrictions.
According to the Director-General, Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, Dr Ifedayo Adetifa, the national travel advisory has been revised by the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 and now requires all inbound travellers to Nigeria to present a negative COVID-19 test result done not more than 48hrs before departure.
Adetifa disclosed that pre-booking and payment for all-day 2 and day 7 COVID-19 PCR tests are prerequisites for travel and, in addition, all outbound passengers, regardless of the requirements of destination countries are expected to present evidence of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test done not later than 48 hours before departure.
However, experts say though the restrictions are welcomed, the continued vaccine hesitancy and lack of acceptability may defeat all efforts being put in place by government to control the transmissibility of infection.
WHO, through the Africa Regional Director, Matshidiso Moeti, had announced a strategy to help poorer countries like Nigeria achieve 40 percent vaccination coverage by the end of this year.
Three per cent
Unfortunately, as of November 30, 2021, only three percent of Africa’s most populated country with over 200 million people has been fully vaccinated.
Statistics obtained from the National Primary Health care Development Agency, NPHCDA, show that a total of 3, 669, 290 had received full dose of COVID 19 vaccine as of that date while 6717,056 of total eligible population targeted for COVID-19 vaccination had received first dose of the vaccine.
At state level, the breakdown shows that Lagos leads with a total of 1, 094,193 out of which only 692,763 had been fully immunised.
READ ALSO: COVID-19: UK govt restricts foreign travellers from Nigeria over reported cases of Omicron
This is followed by Ogun with 427, 032 with first dose vaccination and 192,620 vaccinated fully.
Ogun is followed closely by Oyo with a total of 370,003 clients vaccinated with first dose and 173,753 fully vaccinated persons.
Bayelsa has the least number of persons vaccinated with first dose for 40,296 persons and 17, 828 persons fully vaccinated.
The World Bank’s International Development Association approved $400m (£300m) credit to speed up the country’s COVID-19 vaccination drive,
However, with this insignificant number of Nigerians vaccinated, health watchers believe the nation was off track in the vaccination target.
At the start of the pandemic, Nigeria had set an ambitious goal to achieve herd immunity against the infection to vaccinate 40 per cent of its over 200 million population before the end of 2021, and 70 per cent by the end of 2022.
As of December 3, 2021, Nigeria had recorded a total of 214,317 confirmed cases of Covid-19 from 3,580,510 samples tested as well as 2,978 deaths.
As of the same date, there were 3,969 active cases in Nigeria.
It is no longer news that vaccine apathy has marred the vaccination drive of the Federal Government.
Findings by Sunday Vanguard show that even if more people are coming forward to take the vaccine, there are no enough doses.
Further investigations show that the risk perception is not as it should be.
Experts worry that while doubts persist; Nigerians should not panic but get vaccinated to stop further mutations.
In an interview with Sunday Vanguard, the Head, Infectious Disease Unit, Department of Medicine, University of Lagos/ Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Dr. Iorhen Akase, disclosed that travel restrictions alone cannot save the country from the raging Omicron variant as vaccine hesitancy alone has far-reaching implications that can defeat any control measures to check the pandemic.
Noting that vaccine remains the most cost-effective way of getting the country out of the woods, Akase said the benefit of vaccination is not just for the individual but for the generality of the people.
“Regrettably, the country is having challenges with vaccine hesitancy and acceptability. The implication is that people are going to be more at risk of developing the severe disease because they are not vaccinated”, he said.
“The most salient danger is that when we have infections going on, even if people did not develop severe disease, once infections are going on from person to person in a community and no vaccine is provided for that, there is a possibility that new mutations will still be occurring.
“For viruses, once somebody gets a viral infection, by the time he or she is transferring that same infection to the next person, usually, it is not the same virus that entered that person that leaves the person to infect the other person”.
The expert hinted that viruses by nature learn as they infect new people.
He continued, “When they realise that a person has built immunity around this line or the other, the viruses will say ‘we also need to adjust and adapt to survive’.
“A scenario where you have viral infection occurring in one person to another within a community and there is no control of the transmission, there is a possibility that that community that is not getting vaccination is going to be generating new variants and it is going to be more difficult to control because viruses learn as they go.
“This is a situation Nigeria is now because people are not getting the vaccine.
“So, if we don’t have a strong vaccination and immune response within a community to interrupt transmission of infections, if people are not getting sick from the current variant that is coming, after some time, we are going to be hearing about new variants by different names simply because we are unable to control transmission of infections.
“We need to continue to do more advocacy to get everybody to be on board. That is why the issue of hesitancy is bad”.
Akase regretted that the country was not doing enough in terms of genomic surveillance and vaccinating everybody. “For example, who is to say that the new variant will not come from within the country? We are having an uncontrolled transmissible infection from one person to another”, he said.
“Who says the only threat we are facing now is Omicron? If we are not doing genomics surveillance within the country to know what is happening, testing of travellers is not full proof because that alone cannot solve the problem of transmissible infection.”
He regretted that a lot of underhanded activities such as people going to receive vaccination cards without being vaccinated are going on.
“But we will continue to watch as this variant spreads through the population and may be identify pocket off high-risk growth susceptibly and, for the specific cases that have been or will be identified, standard contact tracing, isolation, testing, connection to care and all of the other relevant measures as stipulated in the guideline will continue to be implemented.
“There is a new variant that does not change what we do, it does not change the effectiveness of public health measures as recommended, it does not change the requirement for vaccination and the benefit that are likely to accrue from vaccination regardless of what the variant does”.
The NCDC boss said the decision of travel ban by some countries on Nigeria was not driven by science and he will not recommend travel ban.
“Recent information from the Netherlands show that they actually identified the cases of the new variant long before South Africa did, but South Africa, Nigeria and some African countries are currently the subject of travel bans and this is not driven by science, and we think from the technical perspective at the moment that it was not the way to go.
“What we need is to enhance surveillance, enhanced vigilance; we need our population to adhere to recommended safety measures. “Remember that the Canadian authorities reported that there are Nigerians who arrived in their territory who subsequently tested positive for this virus, who are we banning?
“Are we going to ban Nigerians from travelling and exporting this virus to other countries or are we going to focus on banning people from other countries?
“So, now, at the last count, 22+ countries have reported this variant, where will the banning end if you start?”
Why Nigerians must worry about Omicron
*Because of its sheer number of mutations, more than prior variants had. Possibly 30 are in a key place, the spike protein that lets the virus attach to human cells.
Scientists recognise a few mutations from earlier variants that were more contagious or a bit resistant to vaccination. But they’ve never seen this particular constellation of changes.
*Because of the combination of mutations