As the world frantically searches for solution to the COVID-19 pandemic, a private Nigerian laboratory has joined the race to produce a vaccine against the deadly disease.
African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), located at Redeemer University in Ede, Osun State, is collaborating with Cambridge University in the United Kingdom on the project.
The private laboratory, which is a strategic partner of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), is responsible for all COVID-19 testing in Kwara and the south-west states, except Lagos.
Coordinating the project at the centre is Christian Happi, a professor of molecular biology and genomics study who as the laboratory’s director runs the project that is currently at early vaccine development stage.
He leads a team of 21 African researchers and vaccine developers in the race toward the production of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Mr Happi’s journey to the peak of molecular biology and genomics study started modestly in 1992 at the University of Yaounde, Cameroon, where he completed a bachelor’s degree and proceeded to Nigeria where he took masters and doctoral degrees at the University of Ibadan.
After a postdoctoral fellowship at the famed Harvard University School of Public Health in the United States, Mr Happi worked as a research scientist for three years at the same institution from 2004 and became an adjunct professor between 2007-2011.
He is currently a visiting professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases (IID), at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH), and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology of the same university.Harvard University.
He confirmed the diagnosis of the first case of Ebola virus disease in Nigeria in 2014 and worked closely with Nigerian health authorities for the successful containment of the outbreak of the disease in Nigeria.
He recently used next generation sequencing technology to perform the first sequence of the new SARS-CoV-2 in Africa, within 48 hours of receiving a sample of the first case in Nigeria.
During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, Mr Happi and colleagues used advanced genomics and deep sequencing technology to rapidly develop new rapid diagnostics tests (five minutes) against Ebola Virus disease, within four months of the outbreak. The WHO and the US FDA approved this diagnosis.
He has also worked with his collaborators to develop a novel five minutes rapid diagnosis test for Lassa fever. In addition to these major breakthroughs, Mr Happi discovered two new viruses (EKV-1 and EKV-2) in Ekpoma Edo State, using a new cutting-edge technology called microbial metagenomics, in 2015.
Mr Happi has received several prestigious International Awards for innovation and Health Leaderships, including the Merle Sande Africa Health Leadership in 2011 and the 2019 Human Genome Organization (HUGO) Africa Prize in recognition of his outstanding and extensive contributions in applying genomics knowledge in addressing major infectious diseases challenges in Africa, especially malaria and Lassa fever and Ebola Virus Disease.
One of the young scientists involved in the project at ACEGID is Judith Oguzie, a researcher and Ph.D candidate in Molecular Biology and Genomics.
“My role in the COVID19 work is on diagnostics of patient samples by Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and next generation sequencing of positive samples to understand genomic diversity of the virus circulating in Nigeria. These data we generate will inform understanding of the virus and help in drug and vaccine development,” she told Premium Times.
Ms Oguzie is part of the team working on COVID samples from Nigeria.
Mr Happi told PREMIUM TIMES that one possible pleasant outcome of the collaboration with a global laboratory like their Cambridge counterpart is that it eliminates the tyranny of giant pharmaceutical companies against poor and developing nations. In this situation, Mr Happi said, “there will be equal benefit from the vaccine if successfully produced as this is an equal partnership project.
“The vaccines have always come from the West, it is only natural that whoever produces a vaccine owns it but in this case we co-own it, we are contributing knowledge as well,” he said.
Mr Happi said the problem of access to vaccines and equity usually encountered by Africa is because of the lack of knowledge contribution to the development of these vaccines.
But ACEGID faces challenges like the lack of adequate PPE and finances.
Mr Happi and his team are getting a thumbs up from a patriarch of virology, generally considered in the academy as the current godhead in the study of infectious diseases in the country, Oyewale Tomori. The professor said: “This is a welcome development indeed. However, I will rather the country invest in developing capability in clinical trials as it is easier for Nigeria as a country to pull that, considering the environment.”
Mr Tomori stressed that Nigeria does not have the basic infrastructure (electricity, water, and many other things) essential for vaccine production, but while ACEGID continues with the research, the country can work towards establishing laboratories for clinical trials.
“We need to have a reorientation to make people understand that your work and my work are of equal importance and until you do yours well, I cannot do mine.
“The government has to put all of the infrastructure in place, it is not the duty of citizens or private practices to do so”, he said, adding that it is only when these structures are in place that work can be done effectively.
“If we can produce our vaccine, it is great, but vaccine production boils down to an enabling environment which we lack in Nigeria,” said Chinwe Uzochukwu, an associate professor of health communication at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka.
A professor of medicinal chemistry at the same university, Ikemefuna Uzochukwu, in a phone interview with PREMIUM TIMES, said vaccines are vaccines regardless of where they come from, provided they meet the global protocol for assessing vaccines. However, he said the local content is super.
“It is a great move if they stick to all the guidelines”, said Geraldine Iwu, a private business woman in Abuja with enthusiasm in science matters.
Tobenna Obiano, an editor at Explorer magazine based in Anambra State, thinks it is a win-win for the world regardless of where the vaccine comes from. But interestingly, he prefers a vaccine from the West for ‘obvious’ reasons.
“I have so much faith in Nigeria’s health system and with good support both from our government and the citizens at large, Nigeria can produce a vaccine that will salvage the situation,” Nyarum Babamaji, a state counsel at the Ministry of Justice, Plateau State, said.
The search for a vaccine against COVID-19 is gathering pace in many parts of the world. The British Health Minister, Matt Hancock, announced on April 21 that a vaccine developed by researchers at Oxford University would be tested on people on Thursday April 23. Human trials of a potential vaccine for the coronavirus were set to begin in the U.K. in the week.
“In normal times, reaching this stage would take years, and I’m very proud of the work taken so far,” he said in a daily news briefing.
Mr Hancock said he would make £20 million ($24.5 million) available to the scientists at Oxford, as well as an additional £22.5 million in funding for researchers at Imperial College London.
“Nothing about this process is certain,” he said. “Vaccine development is a process of trial and error and trial again. That’s the nature of how vaccines are developed.”
Moderna, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, began the first human trial testing for a potential vaccine to prevent Covid-19 in March.
There are currently around 70 Covid-19 vaccines in development around the world, while only a handful are being tested on humans.
Sanofi and GSK, Johnson and Johnson expect to go into massive production of vaccines after their first human trial in the second half of 2020 is successful.
The ACEGID prospect is bound to excite Nigerians, coming at a time when the much advertised hydroxychloroquine as an antidote to coronavirus is suffering significant setbacks, with a recent French study indicating it is less effective than had been promoted.
“This provides evidence that hydroxychloroquine does not apparently treat patients with Covid 19,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Even worse, there were side effects caused by the drug — heart toxicities that required it be discontinued,” a CNN report said.