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Imperative of looking inwards for COVID-19 containment

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. The current coronavirus disease, with no known cure yet, has compelled many countries to look inwards on how to tackle the pandemic.

Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu
Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, Minister of Science and Technology

Though the mandate of the World Health Organisation (WHO) includes advocating for universal healthcare, monitoring public health risks, coordinating responses to health emergencies, promoting human health and well being, among other,s the current situation requires indigenous and home grown approaches.

Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, the Minister of Science and Technology, reiterated the need for indigenous approach, when he said that the current COVID-19 pandemic will alter the balance of the “World Economic Order”.

He spoke during a facility visit to the Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHETSCO).

Onu said that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught Nigeria and other developing countries the need to develop their indigenous technology in order to solve their problems.

The minister was at SHETSCO to inspect its products and inputs into COVID-19 management in Nigeria.

According to  Onu, it is only by developing indigenous technology that Nigeria could defeat poverty and unemployment.

He urged the scientific community to intensify research efforts in order to boost Nigeria’s development.

His words: “You must continue to research on products, to ensure sustainability and ensure competitiveness of the research products.”

The National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC),  and other research institutes have taken up the challenge to join in the fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the mandate of NABDA is to “carry out well-focused research and development in biotechnology in priority areas of food and agriculture, health, industry, environment and other strategic sectors for national development and draw up programmes and policies for biotechnology utilisation, research, and development in Nigeria”.’

Recently, NCDC successfully validated the first phase of the viral Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) extraction which should enable local production of cheap testing kits for coronavirus.

The validation took place in the laboratory of NABDA in Abuja.

Director-General of NABDA, Prof. Alex Akpa, said that the success of the validation was important not only to Nigeria but Africa as a whole.

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“The success of this validation shall enable us to massively produce test kits so that more people would be tested for COVID-19, not only in Nigeria but in Africa.

“The immediate aim is to produce reagents for real time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), and remember, recently the lack of reagents stalled work in Kano and molecular diagnosis could no longer take place,’’ Akpa said.

He also recalled that the absence of the same reagent equally stalled COVID-19 diagnosis in Lagos for many days.

“This project is, therefore, designed to enable not only Nigeria but the whole of Africa to put the issue of shortage of reagents behind,’’ the director-general said.

He disclosed that the project was a Pan-African project whose partners include Ethiopia, NCDC and the University of Sheffield, U.K., among others with funding from African Development Bank (AfDB).

Dr Ndodo Nnaemeka, Chief Molecular Bio-engineer, National Reference Laboratory of NCDC, said he was mandated by the NCDC Director-General, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, to “launch this wonderful project.’’

According to Nnaemeka, the project is designed to solve the problem of RNA extraction kits which had become a global issue.

He said there were serious concerns for the need to have more extraction kits in-country, and that there was growing demand worldwide for extraction kits.

“The western world prioritises their own interest first by making sure that they meet their local needs before exporting to other countries, so there was really need for it,’’ he said,

The NCDC chief molecular bioengineer said the first phase of the evaluation results he carried out with the NABDA scientific team was “awesome and successful.’’

“The kits compete favourably with other international kits we are using, in fact, it scored highly in purity and in quantity of extraction and we are thinking of scaling production,’’ Nnaemeka said.

He said that to be able to conduct tests, the viral information which comes as the RNA has to first be extracted and without this extraction, no test can be conducted.

“What will tell you that the virus is there is contained in the RNA, so RNA is required for you to be able to detect COVID-19,’’ he said.

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He added that as scientists, they would soon carry out the second phase of the evaluation which would involve real sample of COVID-19.

Similarly, Dr Rose Gidado, the Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), said the exercise was historic.

She said the validated RNAswift Test Kit for COVID-19 was developed by Dr Alison Nwokeoji, a Nigerian scientist at the University of Sheffield, U.K.

Gidado also disclosed that the new test kit could test more than 20,000 people per day.

“If we set up more testing centres, we can easily do 50,000 with automation,’’ she said.

Gidado added that the project was a partnership involving NABDA, NCDC, Ethiopia, the National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI) Vom, Plateau State, the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) and the Ministries of Science and Technology, Health and Agriculture.

NABDA also stressed that it was  necessary to conduct antibody testing, especially on  casual farm and logistic workers, who serve as interface between farmers and consumers.

Akpa said that the test would help to identify those farm and logistic workers who were carriers of COVID-19 causative agent, and minimise the risk of contamination of farm produce.

He said that farm produce such as cabbage, lettuce, carrot, tomatoes, pepper, mangoes and oranges, among others, intended for the general populace were at risk of contamination.

According to him, it is particularly important and urgent to test these farm hands who are engaged in harvesting these produce in order to make sure that they are COVID-19 free.

The NABDA boss also stated that if such test was not conducted, farm labourers who are infected with the disease could contaminate the vegetables that are moved to the markets and cities.

Akpa also said that the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges, poorly understood globally.

Its management therefore requires innovative approaches and necessitates the invocation of the strategic mandate of NABDA, with special emphasis on development and cutting-edge bio techniques in testing for new cases.

“Starting with immediate interventions that would complement the efforts of the Presidential Task Force(PTF) on COVID-19, NABDA proposes deployment of  a number of its short to medium term in-country capabilities,’’ he said.

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The director-general said these included the use of its advanced molecular laboratories in Abuja and Odi, Bayelsa as testing facilities to meet and surpass the presidential target of 4,000  per day.

Akpa also stressed the need to conduct antibody testing to determine the immunity level of the populace, especially the working population.

He emphasised that this would enable the government to generally categorise population vulnerability and specifically delineate the working population into susceptible and resilient sects for reopening of the economy.

Akpa said the antibody testing was designed to assist the country identify citizens that had inherent level of immunity against COVID-19.

The director-general said workers with immunity to the disease were those who could return to work amidst the pandemic to support essential services across all sectors.

“This is particularly important considering the fact that such persons  will constitute the critical mass in the fight against COVID-19, especially in combat against health workers’ infection,’’ he said.

Akpa explained that people who survived the disease had built antibodies and these antibodies could be harvested.

He said the antibody could be harvested from the blood that was obtained from the survivor which could then be multiplied through informatics genetic technology.

Akpa also said the agency was offering to assist the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 and the NCDC in the sequencing of local isolates of the SARS-CoV-2 which caused COVID-19.

“This service will enable the country to map the sources of the virus strains available in the country.

“It will also help identify likely variations in medical behaviour that will affect response to treatment and vaccine efficiency.

“We are also poised to participate in the WHO COVID-19 vaccine testing programme, scheduled to commence soon in Africa,’’ he said.

Stakeholders say that with collaboration and adequate funding, Nigerian scientists and research institutes, will make valuable contributions in the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Obike Ukoh, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)

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