Dr. Chinedu Chukwu is Senior Technical Manager with Management Science for Health, a global health nonprofit that supports countries to build strong health systems. He speaks with Aliyu Musa Yar’adua on why African countries can’t develop COVID-19 vaccines and sundry issues.
Nigeria is going through its second wave of COVID-19; what did the country fail to do during the first wave that you think it should do now before things escalate?
Chukwu: In the first wave, we could not identify all the COVID-19 positive cases. We had other infected individuals that we could not identify, and they kept infecting others. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) needs to increase testing dramatically. Considering that COVID-19 presents symptoms similar to malaria, it would be nice to subject every malaria-related case to a COVID-19 test. The testing should be free and accessible at all health facilities. And they should be reliable and enable quick results, like the rapid test kits do, so the results can be shared with patients quickly. We also need a good mechanism to communicate results to the authorities who need this data, like the NCDC. Lastly, we need to train health workers and decentralize the services. Right now, we have one central national database with NCDC to share daily COVID-19 reports.
Developed countries are rolling out vaccines, which are being touted as the best means of curbing the further spread of COVID-19. Africa, and Nigeria most notably seem to be doing nothing in this regard. What could be the challenge?
Chukwu: Nigeria has the human, intellectual, and financial capacity to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. The challenge is lack of political will. Our government is trying its best but should be more responsive in supporting talent development and building capacities through onsite and classroom trainings. However, the challenge could be overcome by not only investing in local talent, but also making other, more immediate investments in buying the vaccine and building the necessary infrastructure to roll it out. NGOs like Management Sciences for Health are here to lend technical support.
How safe and efficacious are the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently being distributed in countries around the world?
Chukwu: Nigeria is expecting to receive its first 100,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in February. The efficacy and safety of that vaccine is above 95% effective against COVID-19. The challenge Nigeria faces is vaccine acceptance, or the will of some people to take the vaccine.
COVID-19 denial is still very much a reality in Nigeria, especially from highly influential leaders. How does this impede the effort of the country to address the pandemic?
Chukwu: The denial is a result of lapses in the national response. Some Nigerians are yet to believe in the reality of COVID-19 because many who have it don’t know they have it. We only hear of a COVID-19 death when a prominent person dies from it, making it look like it’s the disease of the elite, which obviously it is not. Public education around how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has to include clear messages about how the disease is transmitted and how people can protect themselves, which includes proper hand hygiene, social distancing, wearing masks, and, of course, taking the vaccine. As it is now, a sizeable number of Nigerians doesn’t know this. There’s still a lot of work to do, especially by governments at the state level, to keep people informed and safe from the pandemic.
Africa Union has secured 300 million COVID-19 vaccine doses; do you think we have the capacity, in terms of storage and administration of these vaccines?
Chukwu: Nigeria has the capacity to store and administer the COVID-19 vaccine. The National Primary Health Care Development Agency has the equipment, human resources to safeguard and administer the vaccines. I would, however, advise that we procure these vaccines in batches and our government should use this opportunity to expand the current storage capacity to be able to store over 10 million doses, considering our population. Nigeria must ensure more frontline health workers are well trained and deployed to administer the vaccines to eligible residents. Strategies should be put in for IDPs and hard to reach areas to access the vaccine. The country should have a robust and comprehensive database to help strengthen the supply chain systems for vaccines, medicines, and other medical supplies. This will serve our country well now and in the future.