The COVID-19 Omicron challenge – Thisday

The federal government must speed up the vaccination of the citizenry

Last Wednesday, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) raised the alarm that the latest COVID-19 variant, Omicron, has been recorded in three travellers from South Africa, a situation that has now placed Nigeria on red alert. Identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the latest variant from the two years old COVID-19 outbreak, Omicron has been designated to be of ‘high concern’. With 28 other countries now reporting the variant, we cannot afford to be careless, especially regarding vaccination and border requirements.

Although experts differ on the potency of COVID-19 vaccine against Omicron, many are of the opinion that persons already vaccinated stand a chance against the variant. But that is where the real challenge is for Nigeria. Over 203 million persons in the country are yet to receive the first dose of the vaccine, a situation that makes the country particularly vulnerable. Fearing that gains made through vaccination may slow down should the Omicron variant spread, some countries have already started instituted travel ban. The federal government must therefore speed up its vaccination processes.

Meanwhile, it is ridiculous that at a period when we are yet to give the very first dose of vaccine to more than 95 per cent of citizens, the federal government is recommending the administration of booster doses for those who have completed two doses of the approved vaccines. While we do not understand the basis for that decision, it is important for the authorities to ensure strict adherence to travel advisories. There must be insistence on negative COVID-19 results before entering the country, as well as further tests upon entering our borders. Just like other nations, if there is need to place travel ban on countries with high cases of the new variant, we must not hesitate to do so. But the federal government must go beyond awarding contracts for the procurement of vaccines.

As things stand, it is one thing to have vaccine availability and quite a different thing to get the affected public to patronise the vaccine. Long held superstitions and unscientific beliefs have tended to obstruct the application of modern scientific methods in disease control and treatment in Nigeria. Going by persisting irrational resistance to the Covid-19 vaccine in many parts of the world, the psychological battle to compel our people on the importance of vaccination may be as challenging as the process of development of the vaccines themselves. It is therefore compelling urgent for the federal government to launch an enlightenment campaign, especially in rural areas of the country. But the bigger challenge is in the local production of vaccines.

In April last year, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) announced that in order to encourage greater research and development of drugs and vaccines that would help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it was developing a framework under which grants and long-term facilities would be provided to researchers, science institutions and biotechnology firms to develop the Nigerian vaccine. Challenges were thrown to scientists at home and in the diaspora “to go back to their laboratories and develop a Nigerian vaccine.” We are yet to hear of any breakthrough from Nigerian universities. While we recognise that the sector has not been adequately funded, money is not the only problem. More critical is the intellectual quality of their academic staff.

In the absence of an effective COVID-19 vaccine distribution across board, all the country has for now are the infectious disease protocols which must be adhered to pending when every Nigerian receives the jab. Under the prevailing circumstance, as we keep reiterating, prevention remains the most plausible cure. Unfortunately, religious centres are still drawing huge crowds of worshipers while schools and markets shun the safety protocols. There is therefore no better time than now for government to enforce COVID-19 rules already in place. Use of face masks in large gatherings should be encouraged. Maintaining social and physical distancing should be re-initiated, among other measures. With COVID-19, no one is safe until everyone is safe.

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