Nigeria is struggling to mount an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a top pharmacist.
Sam Ohuabunwa, the president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, said in a May 2020 interview with Punch newspaper that the government could have done more to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Two months earlier, Ohuabunwa had poked holes in Nigeria’s readiness after its first case was confirmed on 28 February. As of 17 June, the country had more than 17,000 cases and 455 deaths.
The pharmacist made a number of claims in the interview, covering research and vaccines. We took a closer look at four of them.
Africa Check reached out to Ohuabunwa for his evidence for the claims, but he is yet to respond. We will update this report when he does.
His claim that Nigeria had made vaccines decades ago was in response to a question on whether the country could have been part of the global race to find a vaccine if a production laboratory in Lagos was still functional.
Ohuabunwa described it as a “shame”.
“You can see that we are going backwards in every aspect. If in the 70s and 80s we were producing vaccines and in 2020 we are not producing any,” Ohuabunwa said.
Lagos lab producing vaccines from 1930s
A vaccine is a biological preparation that helps the body’s immune system recognise and fight viruses and bacteria.
Nigeria’s Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory in Yaba, Lagos was created from the Rockefeller yellow fever laboratory, established in 1925.
“The Yaba laboratory started producing smallpox vaccine in 1930s, followed by anti-rabies vaccine in 1948 and yellow fever vaccine in 1952,” Oyewale Tomori, a professor of virology and former president of the Nigeria Academy of Science, told Africa Check.
A 1987 technical consultancy report on the laboratory showed that it was making yellow fever vaccines in the 1970s and 1980s. It produced 316,000 doses of yellow fever vaccine in 1978, reaching a peak of more than 500,000 doses in 1987.
Ohuabunwa lamented Nigeria’s inability, in 2020, to have a working lab to make vaccines.
Tomori, the regional virologist for the WHO Africa region from 1994 to 2004, said there had been attempts to upgrade the Yaba vaccines laboratory in 1991.
But several national setbacks, including political instability, meant this did not happen, he said.
“That facility should have been upgraded to produce more vaccines, but it gradually became inactive,” Tomori told Africa Check.
Could there be others making vaccines?
Partnership to reduce reliance on imported vaccines
The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, established in 1977, has a mandate to research and produce human vaccines.
Prof Babatunde Salako, the director general of the Lagos-based institute, said it did have a vaccine production laboratory, “but it is not functioning well”. He didn’t clarify the lab’s level of functionality. He directed Africa Check to the pharmaceutical firm May & Baker.
In 2017, the Nigerian government partnered with May & Baker to revive the federal vaccine laboratory in Lagos and start local production of vaccines until 2021. This, it said, would make Nigeria less reliant on international donors such as Gavi, the Global Vaccine Alliance.
“Yaba facilities are being resuscitated for renewal of production of yellow fever and measles vaccines with plans for an ultra modern vaccine plant in Ota, Ogun State,” May & Baker’s website says about the project.
We have asked the firm if it has produced any vaccines yet, and will update this report when they respond.
Vaccine lab remains locked
Tomori told Africa Check that no human vaccines were currently being produced in the country. Only vaccines for animals were being made.
“There is no vaccine lab in Nigeria except at the National Veterinary Research Institute, Vom, which is producing veterinary vaccines. The vaccine lab at Yaba is dead.”
He said the federal government’s partnership with May & Baker was an attempt to change this.
In May 2020, Nigeria’s parliament passed a motion urging the government to reopen the Yaba facility to help fight diseases such as Covid-19.
Chike John Okafor, the federal lawmaker who raised the motion, said the laboratory was closed for upgrades in 1991 and remained locked.
“The House is aware that in 2017, the federal government signed a partnership agreement with May and Baker Nigeria Plc to float a company named Biovaccine Limited for the commencement of local vaccine production in Nigeria, however, the company is yet to commence the production of those life saving vaccines,” Okafor was reported saying.
Ohuabunwa urged the government to properly evaluate and fund those who had claimed to have treatments for the virus.
“For Nigeria to have 69 research institutes shows that Nigeria understood that research pays, but the question is what are they doing?” he asked. “If you go to them you would see they are not well funded.”
Africa Check has asked Ohuabunwa what types of research institute he was referring to, as they vary from public to private and independent, and those at universities.
Fewer than 69 institutes
We traced the claim of 69 institutes in Nigeria to the blog Fatherprada. It says it provides “inspirational quotes as well as the very best of student-related content”.
Enebeli Ifenayi, who works on the blog, told Africa Check that “the figure may not be complete. We only listed 69 known research institutes in Nigeria.”
But according to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, the number is incorrect.
Dr Baba Madu, the head of the bureau’s national accounts and macro-economic analysis unit, told Africa Check that according to 2020 data, “Nigeria has 41 research institutes not 69 institutes. That is the figure we have in our data.”
We also looked for publicly funded institutes in budget documents. Nigeria’s proposed budget for 2020 lists 34 centrally funded research institutes.
Inadequate funding of existing institutes
But without clarification of what type of research institutions Ohuabunwa meant, we can only rate this claim as unproven.
Experts, however, agree that research institutes are not adequately funded.
“Rather than talking about the number, I’ll talk about a merger,” Prof Babatunde Salako, the head of the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), told Africa Check.
He said in his view, all health research institutes in Nigeria should be collapsed into one to save public funds and strengthen collaboration.
Tanimola Akande, a professor of public health, said research institutes in Nigeria were not funded to “be really productive”.
“The enabling environment for high impact research is scarce,” he told Africa Check.
“I can tell you conclusively and authoritatively that to date, no single research [into Covid-19] has been sponsored in Nigeria. None, the government has not sponsored any,” Ohuabunwa said.
But he is off the mark here.
In March 2020 the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control announced that researchers had sequenced the genome of the coronavirus strain in Nigeria’s first Covid-19 case. “It proved it to be a match with the virus circulating in Italy and Wuhan,” the centre said.
‘Covid-19 research with government funds’
The NIMR’s Salako said Ohuabunwa’s claim was incorrect.
“It would not be right to say no single Covid-19 research has been sponsored by the Nigerian government,” he told Africa Check.
He said the NIMR was conducting a trial of chloroquine and erythromycin, funded with a donation from the minister of works and housing, Raji Fashola.
Salako added that scientists at the institute were also trying to come up with a diagnosis kit and working on a candidate vaccine.
“All this research is happening in NIMR and is being done with government funds, not ours. As I speak to you, researchers are conducting research on Covid-19, and it isn’t their money they are using to do research.”
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