THE current coronavirus disease (COVID-19), with no known cure yet, has compelled many countries to look inwards on how to tackle the pandemic, with the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and others taking the lead in Nigeria.
Stakeholders believe that with collaboration and adequate funding, Nigerian scientists and research institutes, will make valuable contributions in the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a facility visit to the Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHETSCO), the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, reiterated the need for indigenous approach.
While inspecting the products and inputs of SHETSCO into COVID-19 management in Nigeria, he said that the pandemic, will alter the balance of ‘World Economic Order.’
Onu said that COVID-19 has taught Nigeria and other developing countries the need to develop their indigenous technology in order to solve their problems.
According to the minister, it is only by developing indigenous technology that Nigeria could defeat poverty and unemployment and he urged the scientific community to intensify research efforts in order to boost Nigeria’s development.
The National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), and other research institutes have taken up the challenge to join the fight to contain the pandemic.
Part of the mandate of NABDA is to carry out well-focused research and development in biotechnology in priority areas of food and agriculture, health, and draw up programmes for biotechnology utilization and development in Nigeria.
Recently, NCDC successfully validated the first phase of the viral Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) extraction, which should enable local production of cheap testing kits for coronavirus.
At the validation, which took place in the laboratory of NABDA in Abuja, the Director-General of NABDA, Prof. Alex Akpa, said, “the success of this validation shall enable us to massively produce test kits so that more people would be tested for COVID-19, not only in Nigeria but in Africa.
“The aim is to produce reagents for real time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Recently, the lack of reagents stalled work in Kano and molecular diagnosis could no longer take place.”
The absence of the same reagent stalled diagnosis in Lagos for many days.
He disclosed that the project was a Pan-African project whose partners include Ethiopia, NCDC and the University of Sheffield, U.K., with funding from African Development Bank (AfDB).
The Chief Molecular Bio-engineer, National Reference Laboratory of NCDC, Dr Ndodo Nnaemeka said that the NCDC Director-General, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu mandated him to “launch this wonderful project.’’
According to Nnaemeka, who described the first phase of the evaluation results as “awesome and successful, there were serious concerns for the need to have more extraction kits in-country, and that there was growing demand worldwide for extraction kits.
“The western world prioritises their own interest first by making sure that they meet their local needs before exporting, so there was really need for it.
“The kits compete favourably with other international kits we are using, in fact, it scored highly in purity and in quantity of extraction and we are thinking of scaling production.”
He added that they would soon carry out the second phase of the evaluation, which would involve real sample of COVID-19.
The Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Dr. Rose Gidado said that Dr Alison Nwokeoji, a Nigerian scientist at the University of Sheffield, U.K. developed the validated RNAswift Test Kit for COVID-19.
She disclosed that the new test kit could test more than 20,000 people per day and “if we set up more testing centres, we can easily do 50,000 with automation.”
Gidado added that the project was a partnership involving NABDA, NCDC, Ethiopia, the National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI) Vom, Plateau State, the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) and the Ministries of Science and Technology, Health, and Agriculture.
NABDA’s Director-General, Akpa, said that the test would help to identify those farm and logistic workers who were carriers of COVID-19 causative agent, and minimise the risk of contamination of farm produce.
According to him, if such a test was not conducted, infected farm labourers could contaminate the vegetables that are moved to the markets.
Akpa also said that the COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges.
Its management therefore requires innovative approaches and necessitates the invocation of the strategic mandate of NABDA, with special emphasis on development and cutting-edge bio techniques in testing for new cases.
“Starting with immediate interventions that would complement the efforts of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, NABDA proposes deployment of a number of its short to medium term in-country capabilities,” he said.
The director-general said these included the use of its advanced molecular laboratories in Abuja and Odi, Bayelsa State as testing facilities to meet and surpass the presidential target of 4,000 per day.
He emphasised that this would enable the government to categorise population vulnerability and specifically delineate the working population into susceptible and resilient sects for reopening of the economy.
Akpa said the antibody testing was designed to assist the country identify citizens that had inherent level of immunity against COVID-19.
“This is particularly important considering the fact that such persons will constitute the critical mass in the fight against COVID-19, especially in combat against health workers’ infection,’’ he said.
Akpa also said the agency was offering to assist PTF and the NCDC in the sequencing of local isolates of the SARS-CoV-2, which caused COVID-19.
He said: “This service will enable the country to map the sources of the virus strains available in the country.
“It will also help identify likely variations in medical behaviour that will affect response to treatment and vaccine efficiency.
“We are also poised to participate in the WHO COVID-19 vaccine testing programme, scheduled to commence soon in Africa.”