Obi Adigwe is the Director-General of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD). The Nigerian government established the agency for research and development of drugs, biological products and pharmaceutical raw materials based on indigenous resources.
He speaks on the agency’s work, in relation to COVID-19 vaccine, and other matters.
PT: How is your agency supporting the development of an indigenous vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Scientists like Maurice Iwu have made some advancements in this line but seem to be overlooked unlike their counterparts in the western world. What has been the challenge?
Adigwe: Vaccines are not pharmaceuticals that can be developed overnight and the truth of the matter is that before the pandemic, we had been arguing for Nigeria to establish itself in the vaccines’ manufacturing space. If you go online, as far back as a decade ago, I was one of the first people that spoke out after Nigeria was ravaged by meningitis. I insisted that Nigeria has to start manufacturing vaccines locally. The federal government took my advise then along with that of other stakeholders and established a partnership with a private company to begin the manufacturing of vaccines in Nigeria. The. Name of that company is BioVaccines. There are two factors limiting our ability to produce vaccines the way they are being produced in countries like China, UK and the USA. One is that even though the vaccine company has been established, there is a long process in terms of setting up that needs to be undertaken before they can actually manufacture vaccines.
Secondly, the regulatory agency which is meant to certify that the vaccines manufactured in that particular facility has to be at a level that will enable them approve the vaccine. Unfortunately, these two things are not in place currently but we are making progress. I’m aware that the company has kicked off and they about to establish a facility that enables them bring in some vaccines that have already been researched and developed in other countries and put them in vials in Nigeria. So, it is the tail end of the process that they will be able to do here in Nigeria. I also sit on the board of NAFDAC, our regulatory agency, and I’m aware that some WHO bench marking has been undertaken. And that organization alongside the Pharmacists Council of Nigeria which I also sit on the board of, are making progress to get to the level where they can have the authority to certify vaccines that are manufactured in Nigeria.
Now, talking about what NIPRD is doing. There are many areas where NIPRD has been contributing especially within the pandemic which would add value to how these vaccines are distributed and utilised when they finally get to the Nigerian space. The first thing is the effort we have been making in ensuring that science-led research and development activities underpin government policies. We have been at the forefront of that advocacy. This is an area where people have underestimated the value we have brought to Nigeria. I will give you an example of this. You are aware that in America today, there is a big gap in their COVID-19 response because government has not allowed science lead their response. When the Madagascar COVID-19 organics preparation got to Nigeria, Mr President categorically said these products will not be used until NIPRD does the relevant analysis and tells us it is safe and effective for use. NIPRD, under very tough circumstances, undertook that analysis and I must say we undertook world class analysis. We brought out a report which was the first categorical result worldwide that provided incontrovertible evidence that the product could not cure Coronavirus, as put forward by the government. What people don’t know is that at the very highest levels, both nationally and internationally, there was pressure on this office for the result to be watered down. If we had agreed to water down the findings of our COVID Organics analysis, what would have happened is close to what is currently happening in America. But because we stood firm and said that science must lead the way policies are undertaken. We put up the result and followed up to make sure that the report got to where the policy makers would see it and listen to it. As a result of them using our evidence to make categorical policy statements, countless lives were saved not just in Nigeria but across the world, because that particular analysis was referenced world-wide. We also saved many countries millions of dollars because they would have spent huge amounts importing the product. Through the analysis we did, people now put their attention to other interventions that science indicated could work and that is why we probably have these vaccines that we have today. That is an area where NIPRD has done a lot of work, showing Nigerians the value of allowing science lead how we make health policy decisions. I think that will go a long way in ensuring that when the vaccines get here, people will believe its usefulness in addressing the pandemic.
PT: The world is on the verge of discovering a vaccine for coronavirus. Do you think we have storage capacity, transportation, funding and dissemination of these vaccines when they arrive?
Adigwe: Yes, we do. Over the past two to three decades, Nigeria has built capacity in supply chain and logistics which includes cold chain capabilities. I am aware that in every local government area in Nigeria, there is either existing or there was some structure or framework for cold chain storage of products. That is the infrastructure that the NPHCDA has leveraged on, in other to help eradicate polio. So that structure already exists. What I would be thinking is that the various stakeholders that are involved in this vaccine roll out story should at this point be reviewing the validity of those structures. The vaccines that are being developed require different storage conditions. Some require storage that are quite cold like -70 while others require -20. So what should have been done already, is to identify where we have those that can take -70, and also to identify where we have gaps, so we can ramp up. Additionally, I am aware that some private companies have some of those capabilities. So the ideal thing will be for government and private sectors to work together as seen in other countries to ensure that these infrastructures are maximally utilised and rolled out in a way that will ensure that Nigerians have very expedited access to the COVID-19 vaccine when it gets here.
PT: NIPRD has been established for some years but there has not been a breakthrough in terms of local medicine production, what has been the challenge?
Adigwe: I was appointed just over two years ago and PREMIUM TIMES was the first online media house I had an interview with. And before that interview went on, we took a tour round the environment and the buildings were described as dilapidated. But I’m sure you saw a difference today. From the infrastructure you’ve seen today, I have been able to renovate close to 90 per cent of the dilapidated structures that I met. I have been able to improve our new equipment stock by over 300 per cent in that same period of two years. There has been a five-fold increase in capacity building and training activities for staff, both within the country and internationally. I have also leveraged on this to undertake training that will ensure that my staff are IT compliant. I have been able to ensure a 100 per cent of my confirmed staff have received an official ICT device for their work and they have been trained. So this is probably the only government agency in Nigeria that has done those things within a period of two years of appointment. All of these efforts have resulted into something. In terms of registered products in the market, there have been a threefold increase of registered products since my appointment. Within the next 12 to 18 months, we are looking at bringing a further 10 products into the Nigeria market. With what we did with the COVID organics, I don’t think anybody in the world knew that NIPRD could produce such a world class analysis. We have sharpened our process engagement and based on that, many internationally acknowledged professors have indicated interest to work with NIPRD. And as you know we are a pro-collaboration agency so we are partnering with a lot of people and organisations. As regards phytomedicines development, I would say you can’t count three research agencies in Africa without NIPRD popping up at every point in time. Our target before I complete the first tenure of my appointment is for us to be number one in the world.
PT: Many orthodox medical professionals have lined up several arguments against local medicine such as that they are unregulated, unrefined properly before they are brought to market, what do you make of this argument? How is your agency helping in regulating productions, sale and use of local medicine and the practitioners.
Adigwe: NAFDAC is the agency in charge of regulations not NIPRD. But what we do at NIPRD, I will argue is the most important part of the process, and that is identifying the science behind the phytomedicinal activities and presenting that evidence in a manner that the regulators, doctors and the academic communities can understand, interrogate and validate. We liaise with the people at the grassroots to help them present their claims in a scientific manner, and that the scientific manner is of world class standards. So we publish in peer review journals that are read all over the world and that in turn helps the orthodox practitioners. The more people who understand the role of NIPRD in developing and implementing this science-led approach to expediting phytomedicinal development, the better for the entire country. Because what this means is that Nigeria can start to benefit from the immense socio-economic potential associated with the sector. Jobs will be created, capacity will be built and revenue will be generated both for the practitioners and the government.
PT: The 2021 estimated budget for your agency has been released, what is your take? Do you think funding is one of the challenges of the agency?
Adigwe: Funding has been one of the biggest challenges for NIPRD. When I came into office, the inflow we got was one of the lowest in the country. In the two years I have spent in NIPRD, we have been able to midwife a more than 20 fold increase, in terms of resource inflow for the institute. I’m not talking about funds paid into the account, but of value that has been provided. For instance, the nano technology lab which was provided by a partner is worth about 6 billion. We didn’t request for the money, we asked for the equipment and it was provided. The artificial intelligence and machine learning laboratory which was completed under three months was also given to us by another partner. That has been the hall mark of my administration. I have told people not to give us the money but this is the value we can provide. So if you have confidence in suppliers you have used in the past, use them but bring this critical equipment, infrastructure and projects to NIPRD because that is where you have the best brains in Africa for this particular type of work. With that, we have been able to attract quite a bit of resources, and produce world class results based on those types of partnership. So to your question, the funding is not enough. Although we have gotten significant increase in funding in the time I have been here, but it’s not enough.
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