Ebola: A challenge to our researchers – Punch

After nine months of ravaging countries in West Africa, forecasts by the World Health Organisation and other health experts on the Ebola Virus Disease are still grim. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says about 1.4 million people risk being infected by Mid-January. A total of 2,833 persons have so far been killed and 5,833 others infected. The intensity of the scourge, which has been described as “unparalleled in modern times” by WHO, is a big challenge to our health researchers, as no known cure is available as yet.

The latest outbreak, which first hit Guinea in December 2013, later spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. Research efforts have been on in the United States, Canada and Britain to produce drugs that could be used in curing the disease since the first outbreak was recorded in Zaire in 1976. According to Lamar Smith,chairman of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology,there are two general categories of research: basic and applied. Basic research is discovery science aimed at expanding knowledge. It is the precursor to technological advances. Applied R&D then uses the knowledge gained through basic research to invent new products and technologies. These new products create jobs, new businesses and even entire industries.

But while other governments are breaking new barriers in R&D, our government here is taking a nap. And that is what makes all the difference between nations. For instance, in May 2010, new research found that an experimental Ebola vaccine developed at the US National Institutes of Health could protect monkeys against not only the two most lethal Ebola virus species for which it was originally designed, both recognised in 1976, but also against a newer Ebola virus species that was identified in 2007. In January 2013, researchers at the America’s National Institutes of Health and Oregon Health & Science University found that an experimental vaccine elicited antibodies that could protect non-human primates from Ebola virus infection. These vaccines will be tested in the United Kingdom, the Gambia, Mali and Nigeria.

Before now, ZMapp, a drug produced with the collaboration of two pharmaceutical companies in the US and Canada, but yet to be tested on humans, was hastily approved by WHO to be administered on EVD carriers because of the severity of the health crisis. Now there are no samples of ZMapp available again in the world. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug’s supplies have been exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch.

What does this say of Nigeria with its two medical research centres, the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research in Yaba and the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development? While responsible governments elsewhere are searching for a silver bullet to slay the Ebola dragon, as usual, our government has been dangerously apathetic. Nigeria imports the majority of its pharmaceutical and medical supply needs primarily from European sources. Medical materiel shortages have hindered medical practice, research, and training, according to the United States Diplomatic Mission to Nigeria.

Oyewale Tomori, a virologist, decries this self-inflicted situation. He says, “I know for a fact that we can’t manufacture reagents. But this wasn’t the case in the 1980s. There is no reason why Nigeria should be depending on other countries for its vaccines. We had a vaccine manufacturing firm in Yaba, Lagos in 1991, which has gone under… It is lamentable that a country like Senegal is also one of the countries producing vaccines for us.”

How about expenditures for research and development in basic research, applied research, and experimental development? Figures from African Innovation Outlook 2010, a survey of some of the scientifically most productive sub-Saharan nations showed that only three countries — Malawi, Uganda and South Africa — topped the 1 per cent Gross Domestic Product spending threshold in 2007. Nigeria’s was a paltry 0.2 per cent. And much of that went into overheads and capital expenditure, leaving just little for effective research.

Yet, apart from the dreadful Ebola, we have diseases such as HIV/AIDS, yellow fever, Lassa fever, measles, avian flu, cerebro-spinal meningitis and lead poisoning, among others, to contend with. The laboratory in Yaba that produced the vaccines used to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s is now like Nigeria’s refineries. Official corruption that favours the importation of vaccines above local production has been at work since 1994.

This is most shameful. In the light of the hard lessons from the Ebola emergency, the condition of the Yaba laboratory should be reversed. Besides, the Federal Government should get serious with funding its 63 research institutes, two of which are medical. Most of these centres are unproductive as they now exist only to pay workers’ salaries.

Forward-looking countries do not toy with research in Science, Technology and Innovation. They challenge their researchers; set targets for them, and cash-back such national projects. For example, Israel has a robust six-year STI strategy that runs to 2017. The initiative entails 30 per cent increased funding for its universities and related research centres with the goal of enticing its scientists abroad back home.

Nigeria cannot continue to grovel before other countries of the world to solve her problems. Apart from our research centres, our schools and universities, where the seed of scientific enquiry is sown, must be well-equipped.

The country-wide panic that EVD inspired, should, therefore, awaken the government and our researchers from their slumber. The world of science is universal.

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