Why breakthrough in medical science imperative

Over the years, Nigeria has not encouraged her local innovators especially in the field of medicine thereby contributing largely to the dearth of medical infrastructure being experienced presently. Now that the whole world is still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, it becomes imperative to do the needful. ELEOJO IDACHABA writes.

That Nigeria depends largely on imported drugs for healthcare administration in the country is no longer news as drugs, vaccines for some major and even minor ailments are sourced from oversea countries. This is despite the number of research institutes set up by the government for such purposes.
There have been calls for the encouragement of local content in drugs
administered on the people as against foreign drugs/vaccines with the
attendant fear of adverse reactions. The situation with polio in some
northern states a few years ago is still fresh in the mind of many
people as most of those states detested polio vaccination on children
because of the suspicion that accompanied those vaccines. It took
costly advocacy programmes and several visits to convince leaders of
that region that the vaccine was safe to be administered on their

More worrisome is the fact that there appears to be no local
breakthrough in medical frontiers despite the number of research
institutes gulping public funds. Also, Blueprint Weekend’s
investigations revealed that in some areas in the medical fields where
advances were made by individuals, there appears to be some official
bottlenecks towards getting official accreditation for such efforts.
For example, in the year 2000, the Obasanjo-led administration banned
the use of every drug in Nigeria used to cure HIV/AIDS with a warning
that no one should patronise such self-acclaimants until, according to
them, proper verifications were carried out.

Dr. Jeremiah Abalaka, the man who discovered a vaccine to cure HIV,
contested the ban and sued the federal government over the matter.
Expectedly, the court later ruled in his favour. According to a
Federal High Court in Makurdi where the case was instituted, “Since
the government is not doing anything to help people with the case, it
is only proper for persons so affected to have a right to decide for
themselves whether to use Abalaka’s vaccine or not.”

Dr. Abalaka speaking to newsmen on the matter said, “The point must be
made clear again and again that I do not claim and has never claimed
to have discovered a cure or prevention for AIDS. I have only
developed safe and effective vaccines for the prevention and treatment
of HIV, the causative agents of AIDS.”

That was 21 years ago; since then, it appeared all his efforts have
gone down the drain even though investigation actually revealed that
his hospital located in Gwagwalada, FCT, still remains Mecca of sorts
to health care seekers for vaccine against HIV infection.

Professionals’ angst

While lamenting over the development in a recent interview, Professor
Femi Babalola, the president, Guild of Medical Directors of Nigeria,
said the government cannot continue to pay lip service towards proper
intervention for medical independence.

“Nigeria is capable of achieving independence in pharmaceuticals,
particularly with regards to the generic products. We also have
infrastructural challenges, especially with regards to electricity
supply, which remains epileptic.

“The government also needs to support research. Sadly, in Nigeria
today, it is easier for the camel to go through the eye of the needle
than to get funding for research. However, research must be at the
centre-stage of every effort and it should be encouraged into the
development of novel pharmaceutical products. “We must just not be the
beneficiaries of other people’s efforts, but be net contributors to
the development of novel molecules. If these things are sorted out, I
am sure the sky would be our limit when it comes to pharmaceutical
production. Therefore, government should encourage research. Let
people ask questions and let our scientists seek answers,” he said.
According to him, right now, it is almost impossible to import
pharmaceutical supplies, unless the country has enough financial

He noted that the National Drug Policy as revised in 2005 prescribed
70 per cent local production of drugs and only 30 per cent import.

“Sadly, the reverse is the case now as Nigeria imports 70 per cent of
its drugs, while 90 percent of raw materials for pharmaceuticals are
also imported.”

Writing in Nigeria Health Monitor, a foremost health monitor in the
country, Vivian Ihiekwazu noted that preparing Nigeria for future
pandemics like Covid-19 would require building solid scientific and
research capacity.

She said, “As we progressed through this pandemic, so far, it has
become increasingly obvious that there has been insufficient
investment in science education, scientific institutions and in the
training of research scientists over many years.

“The initial growth of the early science institutions seemed to face
even more difficult times during the Structural Adjustment Programme
(SAP) in the early 1990s, leading to significant cuts in government
health and science expenditure.”

This reporter’s investigation revealed that the government, no doubt,
had the intention of improving the capacity for science and technology
development in the country. The setting up of science and technology
schools, special science primary and secondary schools and federal and
state technology colleges across the country was in a bid to
strengthen the foundation of science and technology education in the
country, with the expectation that it would help develop the expertise
and capacity for science research.

However, the funding to these colleges was never sufficient and
students in many of these technology colleges had to study in poorly
equipped laboratories and training facilities, made worse by poorly
motivated and poorly remunerated science teachers who had access to
limited training opportunities.

Ihiekwazu said, “The consequence of this situation is that Nigerian
postgraduate students often move to countries which provide them with
better access to research funding and a more conducive environment to
develop their research capacity.

Speaking further she noted that setting a foundation for Nigeria’s
science capacity in order to prepare for a future where the country is
not only recipients of science, but full participants is the way out.
“Nigeria needs to have a much stronger educational foundation in
science to build the necessary research capacity right from primary

She observed that Covid-19 has made evident the pressing need for
countries such as Nigeria to prioritise science.

“For science-based policies to succeed in Nigeria, we need public
trust in science. To gain this trust, we must popularise science and
share its benefits in people’s lives. In fighting pandemics such as
Covid-19, where public health measures are needed to prevent the
spread of the disease, trust in science is essential to effect
behavioural change.”

Funding needs

Speaking on the issue, the head of research and development at the
Nigeria Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD),
Prof Martins Emeje, said, “Nigeria is a home to some of the best
pharmaceutical scientists in the world as she has the human capacity
to manufacture any type of drug, undertake research and development
into any type of drug, whether synthetic or natural. The country also
has the professionals, intellectuals and industrial know-how that is
needed to produce vaccines.

“Yet, right now as we speak, Nigeria does not manufacture any drugs.
We import 100% of our drug needs from other countries. This is in the
form of the raw materials which we produce in capsule, tablets,
injection and syrup forms. Alternatively, we import already finished
products primarily from India, China and the United Kingdom for
distribution in our health systems. The primary challenge is in terms
of infrastructure as Nigeria does not currently have the
infrastructural capacity to manufacture all drugs.”

He added, “The reality is that research and development has been
neglected over the years. With the Covid-19 pandemic, there is the
realisation that dependency on other countries to produce medicine for
Nigeria is not sustainable.

“Countries that prepare for war in the time of peace are those that
would survive. It is not during war that you begin to buy ammunitions;
it is during peace that you begin to do research and prepare.
“For Nigeria to be able to produce a vaccine, the intervention from
the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) must be an annual initiative. The
CBN must, as a matter of necessity, fund the project for 25 years. It
must be able to dole out N50 billion to scientists in this country to
continue to undertake research and development into our medicinal plan
and then we would be able to come up with our own vaccine.

“I would advise that CBN select five researchers from the National
Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and merge
them together, providing a yearly fund of N500 million for 10 years. I
can assure you that within 10 years, we would be able to come up with

“The pharmaceutical companies and private sector should also step up
to fund research and development in Nigeria as the government cannot
do it alone.”

Meanwhile, the director-general of NIPRD, Obi Adigwe, said funding
especially from local philanthropists and corporate bodies are needed
for the institute’s research and development. He noted that
pharmaceutical group under the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria
(MAN) offered NIPRD N50 million as an endowment fund to develop local
solutions for diseases. He however, criticised poor funding from
international development agencies.

He added that no other local herbs from traditional medicine
practitioners had been subjected to laboratory analysis, hence, he
could not establish if any of the herbs so far being brandished on the
social media are potent.

He encouraged traditional health practitioners to submit their
discoveries to NIPRD for evaluation.

In the meantime, Dr. Adigwe said in its effort to get a lasting
solution to Covid-19 scourge, the institute for has developed and
listed three Covid-19 products while 10 other products are awaiting

Adigwe noted that while tropical diseases such as malaria remain a
significant healthcare challenge, non-communicable and emerging
diseases such as Ebola and Covid-19 were steadily rising in Nigeria
and many African countries.

“NIPRD has already developed and listed three Covid-19 products while
10 other products were awaiting industry take up.”
He assured that NIPRD would remain committed to achieving health for
the country through its research for local drug production and
medicine security.

This, according to him, informed the huge investment already deployed
at NIPRD leading to the centre being known as Africa’s most robust
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning project in Drug Discovery
& Phytomedicinal Development.

Adigwe said the recent infrastructure investment in Bioavailability
and Bioequivalence was aimed at achieving high quality Nigerian
products with the hope of dominating the continent once the
implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)
picked up with speed.

He called on experts in the industry to partner with NIPRD to achieve this.

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