COVID-19: Prospects Of Vaccinating 200 Million Nigerians Amidst Skepticism

It has been almost a year since Nigeria recorded its index case of the coronavirus infection after an Italian arriving from Milan tested positive for the virus. He came through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Southwest Nigeria.

Eleven months later, Africa’s most populous country continues to battle the deadly virus with over 114,691cases as of Jan. 20, and 1,464 fatalities.

In 2020 soon after the first case was recorded, various measures were put in place by authorities, including nationwide lockdowns, restrictions, curfews, school closures as well as the shutdown of the airspace.

The measures taken to an extent proved effective as the number of infections and deaths have been low compared to nations where cases have been recorded in the millions. Even in Africa, Nigeria ranked eighth in terms of the number of registered cases as of Jan. 11, according to Statista, in spite of its population of 200 million.

Vaccines Bring Renewed Hope

Late last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) approved a number of COVID-19 vaccines, ushering hope of life going back to normal after the drastic changes the pandemic has brought to daily activities and its effect on the global economy.

So far, the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccines are being administered in countries across Europe, the Middle East and America in a rapid rollout scheme to ensure populations are well protected against the virus and in a bid to lift all restrictions to normal life.

Africa has secured 270 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine according to President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and the Chairman of the African Union (AU).

The COVAX programme supported by WHO is in a bid to ensure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries.

COVAX is one of three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT), Accelerator, which was launched in April by WHO, the European Commission and France in response to the pandemic. The programme brings together governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropy with the aim of providing innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

Nigeria has already written to the AU requesting 10 million doses of the vaccines and budgeted 26 million dollars for licensed vaccine production, Osagie Ehanire, Nigeria’s Minister of Health, stated on Monday during the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 briefing.

The vaccines are expected to be delivered in March, contrary to what was earlier stated by the government that they would be available by January.

The government has also released N10 billion to support the domestic production of vaccines, the minister said.

But the 10 million doses will only be enough to vaccinate five million people, as the vaccine needs to be administered in two doses for it to be effective. This means only 2.5 per cent of Nigeria’s population will have access to the vaccine before the acquisition of additional doses.

This poses a huge problem considering that the second wave of the virus is currently in full force and speed required to administer the vaccine as the most effective way of containing the spread of the virus.

Scepticism Surrounding The Vaccine

Many people have raised concerns over the effectiveness of the vaccines, with some citing the speed at which the jabs were developed. But organisations such as WHO and governments have continually expressed confidence that the vaccines were safe and effective and urged everyone to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccines were available to them.

But with rumours and conspiracy theories spreading on social media, concerns still remain high as many reiterate that they would not get vaccinated.

Photoshopped images of vaccines and fake news have also been the main culprits of the anti-vaccine agenda. Doctors, nurses, politicians and other figures have openly discredited the vaccines, strengthening the doubts of many.

In a recently conducted HumAngle poll, 48.8 per cent of the respondents said they would take the vaccine, while 29.3 per cent answered no. Meanwhile, 22 per cent said they remained uncertain on whether they would take a vaccine or not.

Most of those who answered said their decisions were based on what they had heard from medical experts.

Other factors influencing their decisions included political and religions leaders and posts circulated on social media and Whatsapp.

On Monday, Yahaya Bello, the Governor of Kogi State in North Central Nigeria discouraged the use of vaccines. The governor, though, without any background or empirical evidence, argued that the vaccine would be used to kill people. He further attempted to validate his statement by questioning why there was still no vaccine for HIV, malaria, cancer and other deadly diseases.

“Vaccines are being produced in less than one year of COVID-19. There is no vaccine yet for HIV, malaria, cancer, headache and for several other diseases that are killing us. They want to use the (COVID-19) vaccines to introduce the disease that will kill you and us. God forbid,” Bello argued.

“If they say they are taking the vaccines in public, allow them to take their vaccines. Don’t say I said you should not take it but if you want to take it open your eyes before you take the vaccines,” the governor stressed.

Dino Melaye, a former lawmaker, also called on Africans, particularly Nigerians, not to accept any COVID-19 vaccine, claiming an “intelligence gathering” had revealed those who were administered the vaccine died within three days.

“I am calling on African leaders not to allow Africans to be used as guinea pigs by the developed nations for their satanic reasons,” Melaye said without giving any specific instance of who had died after taking the vaccine.

Challenges In Administering Vaccines

According to the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), it has not received any application from any COVID vaccine manufacturer to dispense its product in Nigeria.

Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, the NAFDAC Director-General, in a statement on Friday said no vaccine had been approved for use in Nigeria despite the government allocating N10 billion for vaccine production.

“COVID-19 vaccines are new, and the side effects or adverse events must be well monitored. Therefore, if NAFDAC does not approve, the public should not use them, ” Adeyeye said.

On a more worrisome note, the agency noted reports of fake vaccines circulating in the country and urged the public to be wary of such. It said the effects of such fake vaccines could be lethal.

The Nigerian Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) also addressed the issue of storing the Pfizer vaccine, saying Nigeria lacked facilities to store it.

The Pfizer vaccine has to constantly be stored at a temperature of -70 degrees celsius. Because of this, transporting the vaccine, storing it and getting it to the population to be vaccinated poses a major logistical challenge, NIMR noted.

But the health minister said that the vaccine to be administered in Nigeria did not require deep freezers but did not indicate the name of the vaccine in question.

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Hafsah Abubakar Matazu

Hafsah Abubakar Matazu is the current Programme Director at HumAngle. She holds a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) in Mass Communication from Baze University Abuja. Prior to joining HumAngle, she worked for Abuja-based Daily Trust Newspapers as an investigative reporter. She leads the program team in planning and implementing grants as well as funded and non funded reporting projects. She tweets via @hafsahabubakar_

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