Living with COVID-19: One year of the pandemic in Nigeria

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Nigeria marks one year since first COVID-19 case

By Abujah Racheal

As Nigeria marks the first anniversary on Saturday of the first diagnosed coronavirus case, while the country’s first batch of COVID-19 vaccine is expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2021, the country has surpassed 1,885 deaths while the virus rages on.

Earlier, the World Health Organization categorized the country as one of the 13 high-risk African countries with respect to the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, Nigeria was among the vulnerable African nations, given the weak nature of her healthcare system.

Nigeria recorded an imported case (index case) from Italy on February 27, 2020. This raised concerns about the effectiveness of airport surveillance and by extension, the country’s general preparedness.

The coronavirus pandemic utterly altered humankind’s existence and ravaged lifestyles, populations, and indeed, the world’s economy. In one year, it irrevocably changed the psyche of Nigerians.

Upon the detection of the index case, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, activated a multi-sectoral National Emergency Operations Centre to oversee the national response to COVID-19. Subsequently, the Presidential Task Force, PTF, on COVID-19 was inaugurated on March 9, 2020. The PTF promptly announced that travellers from 13 COVID-19 high-risk countries would be   restricted from entering the country.

The Port Health Services and NCDC began to monitor the self-isolation of returnees from the affected countries from then onward. The concern from several quarters was that the ban on high-risk countries should have been enforced much earlier. By the time the ban took effect, the country had recorded more imported cases. Unfortunately, most of those who arrived in the country did not comply with the 14 days self-isolation recommended by the public health institute.

According to NCDC, all confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country between February 27 and March 27 were imported by returning travelers. As of March 27, one month after the first case, 10 states in the country had 81 clinically confirmed cases. Three patients had fully recovered, and one death was reported.

Today, the mystery pathogen, SARS-CoV-2, responsible for COVID-19, a respiratory illness, has infected over 153, 187 people in Nigeria. In just one year, we’ve gone from one death to 1,885 across the country.

It is immediately obvious that public health experts, virologists, epidemiologists, journalists and the government were flying blind in those very early days. We were oblivious, perhaps even short sighted. No one could predict exactly what would occur over the next 365 days in the country though there were those who tried to sound the alarm early.

While the pharmaceutical companies have promised to treat all countries equally in securing COVID-19 vaccines, they have not. Pfizer announced the European Union will get increased deliveries and US shipments are uninterrupted.

On vaccines, Nigeria is exploring all options available for the acquisition of approved vaccines for citizens. Apart from the COVAX facility, which was billed to cover vaccination of just 20 percent of the country’s population, it plans to increase the chances of getting enough vaccines to meet the country’s need to cover an additional 50 percent of the population.

Nigeria is also participating in the African Union initiative, the African Vaccine Availability Task Team, which reports directly to the African Union Chairman, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. The AU has secured options for 270 million doses of various types of vaccines.

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Nigeria is also bearing in mind options suitable for its environment and the available infrastructure, as well as investment in delivery. The country had written to express interest in 10 million doses of the viral vector vaccine, which is expected to be supplied from March 2021. This vaccine does not require deep freezers.

The Federal Ministry of Finance has released N10 billion to support domestic vaccine production. While the country is working to develop its own vaccines, it is also exploring options for licensed production in collaboration with recognised institutions. Nigeria is also exploring the option of local production of the vaccines in-country and has had discussions with an unnamed producer.

The Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria has insisted that until the Pharmacist Council of Nigeria, PCN Bill, is passed, there is no possibility of producing a COVID-19 vaccine in the country.

The PSN President, Pharm. Sam Ohuabunwa, said the PCN Bill was the law regulating medicines production in the country and everyone involved in Pharmacy practice, including those in the open drug markets.

While speaking on the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines in Nigeria, Ohuabunwa, stressed that without the PCN Bill being passed into law by the National Assembly, the WHO would not grant the approval for vaccine production to Nigeria.

“PCN Bill and vaccine production are like a twin which cannot exist without the other. Situations have arisen in the past when NAFDAC approached the WHO for approval on similar issue, but when the former PCN Bill was presented as a requirement, it was turned down on the basis of weakness. Hence, the need for the passage of the new bill arises.

“We have the science and technological know-how. In fact if the Bill is passed into law today, I can tell you that in less than 18 months, we can give the government a detailed proposal for the production of COVID-19 vaccine”, he asserted.

The Executive Director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Dr. Faisal Shuaib, said Nigeria was set to receive four million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines in the first batch of vaccines expected in the country, as part of the 16 million doses initially expected in the country.

“We have been informed that 4 million out of the 16 million doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines will arrive in the first batch of supplies to the country,” he said.

The Nigerian government had earlier announced it was expecting an initial 16 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines through the Vaccines Global Assess Facility by the end of February.

An additional 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines donated by telecom giant, MTN, will also be delivered to the country by the end of February, the minister of health, Osagie Ehanire, disclosed at a PTF press briefing.

Ehanire said an additional 42 million doses of the same vaccine will be delivered to the country through the African Union’s African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team.

He noted that the government aimed to vaccinate approximately 109 million of its population against COVID-19 over a period of two years.

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Meanwhile, The Director General, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye has approved the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine for use in Nigeria.

But the PTF chairman, Mr. Boss Mustapha cautioned Nigerians against patronising black market out of desperation to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

Mustapha said the PTF was working hard to ensure no stone is left unturned in the effort to access safe and efficacious vaccines.

“We plead with Nigerians not to procure uncertified vaccines from the black market.

“Vaccines remain critical in the battle but we must remain well informed because of the intense transmission which is putting enormous pressure on the hospitals, intensive care units and health workers in our different communities”, he said.

Presently, the so-called second wave of the pandemic has proven to be more disastrous than the first with cases increasing despite measures to stop the spread in the country.

The unrelenting year-long battle has left Nigerians wondering if there was an end to it all.

The NCDC Director-General, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, disclosed that a new variant of COVID-19 has been detected in the country and 15 other countries.

Ihekweazu said that the new strain, B.1.2.5 which was different from the highly infectious B.1.1.7 has not been described as a variant of concern yet.

The NCDC boss said that researchers and scientists are working hard to understand if this variant had any effect on the virus transmissibility, immunity, as well as diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics.

“A total of 54 cases with the B.1.1.7 variant strain, which is a variant of concern first described in the UK have been detected in Nigeria.

“There is a new variant, the B.1.2.5 which we have begun to detect in Nigeria and 15 other countries.  It is important to note that this variant has not been described as a variant of concern yet.

“Researchers and scientists are still working hard to understand if this variant has any effect on the virus transmissibility, immunity, as well as diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics.

“This is because the variant has some similar mutations with the B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1 variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, respectively,” said Ihekweazu.

The NCDC boss stated that the agency is scaling up its sequencing capacity to have a better understanding of the burden of variants of concern in the country.

According to him, the risk of virus mutation was higher when there is high transmission of the virus.

The NCDC boss said the September and October 2020 household prevalence surveys carried out in Lagos, Enugu, Nasarawa and Gombe States revealed the level of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies among the population.

“The findings from the survey show that the estimated prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the population is 23 per cent in Lagos and Enugu States, 19 per cent in Nasarawa State and 9 per cent in Gombe State,” he disclosed.