COVID-19: We have saved countless lives, millions of Dollars – Adigwe, DG NIPRED

The Director-General (DG) National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRED), Dr. Obi Peter Adigwe in an  interview on Monday spoke passionately on burning issues of national interest which include how the institute has fared in the delivery of its mandate and inadequate funding as a major setback and a cog on the wheel of the institute’s drive and effort to helping the government contain the COVID 19 pandemic, among other critical issues. Excerpts:

By Chimezie Godfrey

Q: You have been in office for over two years from my records. What have been the challenges of the office, how have you coped and what value has NIPRED added to the lives of Nigerians?

A: You’re quite right that I have been in office for slightly over two years. The organization I inherited on August 20th 2018, is a different analog from the organization you see here today. One of the key things we have issues with obviously is funding, we had poor capital appropriation in the year I was appointed, I have been able to engage the NATIONAL ASSEMBLY and members of the presidency and currently our capital budget has more than two folds increase from the time I have been here.

The other challenges I have had, have been that when we came on board, people did not quite understand the values that NIPRED was able to bring to their lives, both stakeholders on top government positions as well as the man on the streets. But we have been able to undertake an aggressive and comprehensive engagement of these stakeholders at various levels for them to understand how NIPRED’s mandates actually touch their lives.

For instance, the ground breaking work the institute was able to do on quality of hand sanitizers; the availability of hand sanitizers when COVID-19 pandemic hit the shores of Nigeria on February 27th 2020. I am sure you are also aware of the work we did on the Madagascar and COVID organics where our analysis went viral in both English and French and as a  consequence of our analysis, policy makers and scientists across the world used our findings to save countless lives and millions of dollars.

We have been able to do some work to improve our funding as well as enabling stakeholders understand the value NIPRED brings. However, despite the work we have done, there is still need for more funding by government as well as by stakeholders such as philanthropists and development partners. And also the need for people to better understand how research and development science drives development as a country.

A: The federal government is expecting the arrival of vaccine soon to tackle the spread of COVID-19 infection in the country, but experts in medical science have said that Nigeria does not have the capacity to even warehouse the vaccines at the required temperature because of the type of weather we have. I also saw the news where the government itself is crying over storage issues. How true is this, Sir?

A:That is not true! I’m aware that we have some cold chain capacities to store some of those vaccines but if you are talking about how many we have then, that is an issue.

As for the news on the news paper, I would have to see what you saw before I can’t comment on that. But I can tell you categorically that NPHCDA has cold chain capabilities.

Like I said earlier on, I don’t know to the extent but I cannot say that we don’t have; that is an incorrect statement to make.

Q: We appreciate the fact the government has done its part in setting up this research institute, but there has been hue and cry over the vaccines that are being expected by the people for diverse reasons. What is your take on this Sir?

A: Vaccines are not the only interventions for COVID-19. Vaccinw is one out of three broad categories of interventions.

Under pharmaceutical inventions you have vaccines, you have conventional medicines and then you have fighter medicines. So why are you hueing and crying over only vaccines when you can focus on developing your own?

Q: In what areas is the institute supporting the government in tackling the COVID-19 Pandemic?

A: Many areas. But due to paucity of time I will mention about two or three. First thing as you are aware, NIPRED pushed for and I am a statutory member of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) so we regularly provide a research and development perspective as to how the Presidential Task Force takes decisions that impact on Nigerians in the COVID-19 Pandemic response that we do statutorily.

We are also a statutory member of the top management of the committee of the ministry of health and at that level we also provide value to how the ministry of health articulates the response either at the ministerial level or in partnership with the Presidential Task force. But directly as NIPRED, the several pieces of research and development activities that we have done have saved countless lives, not just in Nigeria but across Africa. So the shortages that you saw on hand sanitizers in Europe and in the Americas, you did not see those shortages when the Pandemic hit the shores of Nigeria because of certain specific actions that were taken care of by the institute.

Even before the Pandemic hit the shores of Nigeria, NIPRED used locally sourced materials to locally produce hand sanitizers.

What we additionally did was to share that formula with all interested local refactorers to ensure a wide spread availability of hand sanitizers when that particular pandemic hit the shores of Nigeria.

Additionally, not once not twice but several times, products have come to us from top echelons of government for our analysis and advice. I have only mentioned one which is the COVID Organics which went viral and sometimes we tell government this works, or this does not work. In fact, one of the ones we reported to government was that this product is dangerous for human consumption. So this is the type of advice based on our certified laboratories that we have been able to provide categorical analysis for relevant government agencies.

But additionally, this particular product which is nipremium; is based on a widely available fighter medicine called  “ando-graphics paniculather”. Close to a year ago, we were one of the firsts to predict that the particular product could have an activity against COVID-19 and we came to this conclusion based on our Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capability which we used to predict the potential of this particular product.

Unfortunately like I mentioned in our challenges, we did not have the requisite funding to undergo the clinical trials that will enable us categorically say how this drug can help in COVID-19 management and so  other colleagues in other parts of the world who have had the requisite funding have gone ahead to now start using this particular product in managing COVID-19.

And so these are just a few examples of how specifically, NIPRED has been able to help government tackle COVID-19.

Q: Having intervened during the meningitis breakout, would same intervention be done for Ebola Virus and the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: We developed ‘nitripple’ for Ebola. Again, at the stage where the particular product was now meant to be taken to the next level which is the completion of pre-clinical test and clinical trials for Ebola, the funding dried up. So we are still going round and coming back to the same situation which is that people like you need to engage development partners, philanthropists and all well meaning Nigerians to support the work we do here at NIPRED so that we can use our capacity to provide solutions for diseases that plague our people.

Q: What do you have to say about the United Nation’s report which says that Africa is lagging behind in responding to the pandemic via vaccines?

A:: You cannot give what you do not have. Africa cannot give what it does not have. Africa does not have vaccine manufacturing capacity so you cannot logically, provide the type of vaccine reaction that countries that possess several vaccine manufacturing plants can do.

So, unfortunately that is where we have found ourselves. But whilst it is a sad situation, there is some succor to be had in that about four-five years ago, when the meningitis scurf broke out we spoke out to say that the Nigerian government needs to prioritize local vaccines manufacturing and based on that particular engagement the current administration put forward about 2.5 to 3 billion Naira so I’m partnering with the local manufacturers and that led to the creation of bio vaccines.

Now that is a step in the right direction and those are the kind of interventions we now need to focus on to ensure that by the time the next pandemic comes around, we should be producing vaccines here in Africa.

Q: You said Africa lacks capacity. But narrowing this down to Nigeria, do we have the capacity?

A: I was specific; I said vaccines manufacturing capacity, not capacity in general.

Here at NIPRED we have close to seventy five Masters and PHDs all aggregated in various value chains of pharmaceutical and fighting medicinal drug development and I can comfortably say that we have world class scientists here at the institute. But it is not just the scientists that make up the capacity, you need the infrastructure, you also need the equipment, you also need the policy environment. So, yes we have world class scientists but unless those other factors are also in place you cannot say you have the full capacity to produce the type of results that your peers who are in the other settings where all this factors are in place can produce.

Q: Do you have any fear over the safety of the vaccines because Nigerians have expressed concerns regarding the safety of the vaccines in question?

A: That is for the Director of NAFDAC to answer.

Q: From your explanations, it is now very clear that lack of funding is the major challenge your organization has. Going forward, is there anything you are doing to encourage the government to support your organization?

A::Yes. Government is already supporting us. Part of what I’m doing to get funding from the areas where funding should be coming from but it is currently not coming from is sitting here with you in order to encourage such people to fund research in NIPRED. Because if it is engaging government I know the way to the National Assembly, I know the way to the presidency, but that chief in your village and that billionaire that lives besides you I do not know the way to their houses, but by the time I give this interview and they read it through your medium they will realize that there is an organization such as NIPRED that has this capacity and that the product that will come out from NIPRED is not only for Adigwes to use. People of your family, people of your village and their offices will also use it when we finish the research so they will understand the importance of also supporting NIPRED, that is what is missing.

And speaking with you now at a few minutes to seven is the work I am doing in order to attract that funding.

Q: How far can the N10 billion  meant to fight COVID-19, in the 2021 appropriation by the Federal Government go?

A: I have not received any ten billion Naira, so I cannot answer that question.

Q: Professor John Nkangasong, Director of Africa Center for Diseases, said Africa is better placed to tackle COVID-19 if they collaborate rather than pursue a nationalistic approach. Do you subscribe to this?

A: Oh yes! I happen to be one of the most collaboration-minded Directors-General that was ever appointed. Since my appointment slightly over two years ago I have visited close to seventy other DGs, CEOs, Directors and Managing Directors in terms of identifying partnerships where we can collaborate. As I am speaking with you a fellow agency gave me ten slots to train my staff in India at no cost to NIPRED, it is as a result of collaboration. As I’m speaking with you, another agency gave me infrastructure close to one billion Naira for my artificial intelligence and machine learning laboratory, it is as a result of collaboration. As I am speaking with you an agency has given me laptops and Information Technology devices which I have distributed to one hundred percent of my confirmed staff at no cost to NIPRED, it is as a result of collaboration, so I cannot agree more with John Nkangasong that we need to collaborate in order to get out where we find ourselves today.