COVID-19: Funding Stalls Efforts Of Nigerian Scientists Developing Vaccine, Test Kits

In the ‘new normal’ imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, countries around the world are racing to develop better test kits and vaccines.

In Nigeria, scientists have developed a vaccine and are ready to start human trials. Also, a cheaper and faster COVID-19 test kit has been developed to ramp up testing.

Despite the recent low cases recorded and announced by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), there are fears that the country might be under-testing.

This fear of underreporting cases and the inherent dangers have motivated scientists to develop home-grown kits and vaccines that might end the terrors of the pandemic.

The development is important especially as the subject of vaccines and test kits have taken shape as national issues with scientists catering to their individual countries.

Vaccine hampered by funds

Scientists in Nigeria have developed a new vaccine candidate which they say is optimized for the African population.

The new vaccine candidate was developed by professor Christian Happi, a molecular biologist and genomicist, with his research team at the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in Nigeria.

ACEGID is a World Health Organisation (WHO) and Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC) Reference Laboratory for genomic research in Africa.

According to Happi, the vaccine has undergone a successful pre-clinical trial but the human trial is being delayed due to a lack of funds.

The cost of developing a single infectious disease vaccine from preclinical trials through to end of phase 2a can easily top 100 million dollars in the United States.

Including the cumulative cost of failed vaccine candidates through the R&D process, the costs can go much higher.

The ACEGID COVID-19 vaccine is said to have gone through the required preclinical trial to test the vaccine’s efficacy and toxicity on mice before testing it on humans after working with partners at Cambridge University.

“We were able to identify a neutralizing antibody that could knock down up to 90 per cent of the viruses,” says Happi.

Emphasizing the importance of the new vaccine candidate to Africa, he highlighted concerns also shared by some other African scientists that vaccines were often developed in the West without taking into account the local context of Africa only to be brought to Africa for human trials.

“The genetic makeup or the genetic diversity of the African population has been demonstrated to affect the efficacy of several vaccines that have been developed because the vaccine also depends on who is receiving it and how the body responds to it,” Happi said.

The vaccine is being built on the genome sequences of linages of SARS-Cov-2 circulating in Nigeria and other African countries.

The team says it has done human genetic studies on many African populations and applied the knowledge gained in developing the vaccine.

If fully funded, Happi said the vaccine could be ready in one year after the start of the human trials, but that the centre was still searching for funds to start human trials.

“We need a lot of resources so we are trying to see whether the Nigerian government can fund it but we have not received any funding from the government,” he said.

Nigeria’s policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic through its central bank introduced a healthcare grant of N500 million (about $1.3 million) limit.

Happi told Quartz that this amount was insufficient for vaccine production and clinical trials. “We are talking to a few people and have been able to show them the data. We want to wait but we have not heard from anybody yet.”

Cheaper, faster test kits

Scientists with the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) have developed a cheaper and faster COVID-19 test kit to increase testing capacity.

The new test is cheaper than other PCR tests, which is the most common type of test, and can give results in less than 40 minutes, NIMR said.

The diagnostic test kit will cost less than 25 dollars (about N9, 550) and samples can be analyzed using a mobile machine that can be operated by low-skilled personnel with minimal training, the agency said.

“We saw the need for more testing outfits, especially one that can give results in a short time because hospitals were refusing to treat patients without COVID-19 results,” Babatunde Salako, the director of NIMR, told CNN.

“The machine we use is not the common PCR one. We bought the machine and adapted the kit that we developed to work with this machine. It is meant for diagnosis of other pathogens,” Salako said.

Salako said that the detection rate of the NIMR test kit was “a bit lower than the PCR, but for the point of care, we believe it is good enough for now.”
Nigeria currently imports PCR test kits from China and has faced challenges in getting enough to test most of its population of 200 million.

“We thought this one was very important as it will diversify the way testing is done. With this one, all the people in villages and remote areas can be tested by moving the machine to those villages,” Salako added.

Nigeria has Africa’s largest population and has tested only about 500,000 people, according to NCDC. The PCR test is the most widespread and accurate diagnostic test for determining whether someone is currently infected with coronavirus.

However, the tests require specialized supplies, expensive instruments, and the expertise of trained lab technicians, which has led to shortages and a testing gap globally.

While testing in Nigeria is free in state-owned laboratories, there are few such facilities and they are only in major cities. Sometimes, health officials have had to transfer samples to other states to confirm results because of the shortage of kits.

“It has always been my concern and passion to see that Nigeria doesn’t have to take samples outside to diagnose. We have scientists who are capable of this if they have the necessary support.

“That was what led to a visit to Senegal and China, we had collaboration to train our people in pathogen detection, even before COVID started, we went in August and September, 2019 to train our scientists,” Salako added.

Salako said the test kits would be mass-produced once validated by the regulatory authorities — the Nigeria Center for Disease Control and the Medical Laboratory Science Council of Nigeria. “We do not expect the validation to take so long.

“The only limitation is that we have to produce more samples of these kits and acquire some new machines that are key to our work. Once that is done, we can mass produce with government support and serve markets in all of Africa,” he said.

As of October 3, the NCDC had confirmed 59, 127 cases, 1, 112 deaths and 7, 422 active cases.

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Anita Eboigbe

Anita Eboigbe is a journalist and data analyst with nearly a decade of media and communications experience in Nigeria. She has expertise in human interest reporting, data reporting, interactive content development and media business management. Anita has written for several national and international publications with a focus on communication for development. She holds an honours degree in Mass Communication and several certifications in data analysis and data journalism.

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