The plan by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) in partnership with May & Baker PLC to begin local production of vaccines has barely started but is already shrouded with concerns.
So many questions are being raised. Some school of thought say the process was suppose to go through the National Assembly before approval by the Executive. Some others ask, why is it only May and Baker, why not make it open so that other people may get involved? There are also concerns that May & Baker is not a vaccine manufacturer. There is also the question that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) encourages monopoly, with May & Baker the only player.
There is also disagreement on the actual takeoff grant for the project. The FGN on May 31, 2017 announced its plan to commence local production of vaccine in the country from 2017 even as the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved a joint venture agreement between her and May & Baker to produce vaccines needed in the country.
Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, revealed that the joint venture sets up a company, Biovaccines limited, which the FGN owns 49 percent while May and Baker has 51 percent equity share. Adewole said the company, with a takeoff capital of N2.5 billion, is expected to meet the basic vaccines need of the country.
Between 1940 and 1991, Nigeria was not only producing vaccines such as smallpox, yellow fever, and anti-rabies vaccines but also exported to Cameroon, Central African Republic and a few other countries.
However, in 1991 the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory (FVPL) in Yaba, Lagos, stopped production ostensibly because the government wanted to reactivate and upgrade the facility, which did not take place until today.
Also, Nigeria spends over N7 billion annually importing vaccines into the country, with about 80 percent cost of vaccines being subsided by Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI).
The Global body has informed the FGN that it will be stopping this subsidy by 2022. Reacting to the concerns, Managing Director (MD)/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of May & Baker, Mr. Nnamdi Nathan Okafor, told The Guardian: "I have heard people say that the process was suppose to go through the National Assembly, trying to knock the heads of National Assembly and the Executive to pull us down. Those comments are not correct. I have also heard comments like why is it only May and Baker, why not throwing it open, so that other people may get involved. My and my answer to that is that this project started in 2004 and in 2005 there was an approval. So it is not a new thing. The approval has been there and the business even started running at some point. So it is not a new thing that they will now have to throw open and by the way, if anybody has any company manufacturing in Nigeria that is local that they believe is better than May and Baker, let the person say it? But there is none. I can beat my chest and say that nobody is better qualified.
"If somebody is saying they went to the website and they didn't see May and Baker as vaccine manufacturer? Yes we are not manufacturing vaccines yet. Yes we never started and no company has started in Nigeria, in fact, in the whole of Sub Saharan Africa. It is only in South Africa that they have a company called Bioval, which is like what we are doing here, Public Private Partnership (PPP) with government. Pasteur owns the one in Senegal and they manufacture Yellow fever vaccine. There is no other company in Sub Saharan Africa that is manufacturing vaccine. So they say they went to look for May and Baker, you cannot find May and Baker there. May and Baker does not do vaccines. These vaccines will be done by Biovaccines not even May and Baker.
"You see people are looking for things to pull us down. Some are saying it is monopoly. This is not monopoly. The agreement we have with government did not say it is exclusive. We are talking about strategies and targets. You see in five years we cannot meet 20 per cent of our vaccine needs. It is big market. Anybody who wants to come in can come in. We are no threats to the multinationals that are already supplying to Nigeria. We are no threat to any local company that wants to come in? Let them come in.
"There is no monopoly and the agreement we have with government is that we must supply at competitively priced levels; competitive to international rates. Of course subject to any domestic reference that is available in accordance to procurement Act. It also stated that whatever product we supply must be National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and WHO certified. So there is nothing in that agreement that has shortchanged the taxpayer. Everything there is in the interest of Nigeria on the long run."
Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN) has commended the Minister of Health and the FGN for heeding its call and indeed the call of most Nigerians for local production of vaccines.
PMG-MAN in a letter to the Minister of Health, which was jointly signed by its President, Mr. S. Okey Akpa, and Executive Secretary, Dr. Obi Peter Adigwe, said: "... This partnership with May and Baker is the first step in revitalizing local vaccines' production in Nigeria, and represents the most sustainable and effective approach to ensuring the relevant national security and self-sufficiency in this critical area."
President Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), Ahmed Yakasai, said: "Nigeria will start producing vaccines at least Yellow fever after the agreement signed between FG and May and Baker. ... When you go to the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory in Yaba, Lagos, there is nothing in it. So whoever is taking over that thing will spend a lot of money. It will be more than N2.5 billion they signed. I am sure May and Baker is in for it. They have to spend a lot of money. So we are now on the global map on the production of vaccine but unfortunately still they can only supply 20 per cent of our requirement. The way they are going they must be competitive. It will not be because they are the only producers they will have to sell at any rate. No! Vaccine has international price component."
President Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Mike Ogirima, said: "The issue of local vaccine production is not a new concept. .. I am sure whoever is going to be employed to actually do the technical job will be capable of saving not only N2.5 billion but we hope starting it again is going to expand the employment value of the centre. I know you may not be able to quantify immediately but you will be able when we stabilize our own consumption, we will be able to market our products just as we were doing before to other African countries. So we are going to earn foreign exchange apart from helping our population."
Meanwhile, contrary to what the Minister told journalists, May & Baker said there is no N2.5 billion counterpart funding. Okafor explained: "You see that facility was valued at about N500 million in 2007 but when we now wanted to renew the agreement, government said they were going to revalue it. So they went and revalued and took it from N500 million to N1.2 billion. We do not agree with this. At that point we were going to walk away but we felt that government should not be the ones doing that evaluation, that it should be an independent party. An independent party did the reevaluation and it was lower but government still insisted that they must do it and they increased it. So we didn't think that was fair. But of course because we have been on this for a long time we felt let us just make progress. Of course that was the only contribution government was going to make. Government is not going to bring any dime to the operations of the business."
May & Baker also refuted reports that the FGN has released N100 million as a take off grant to Biovaccines. Okafor explained: "I think the Minister mentioned N100 million, which I have had people say that government was going to give initial grant of N100 million. That is not correct because the only N100 million we have in the agreement is the registered authorized share capital of the company was quoted as N100 million... "
Also, there are concerns on whether has the capacity to into local production of vaccines considering the technicalities involved? Okafor said: "You see I have had several people say this is too technical, Nigeria cannot do it and I said to them, no. It is wrong. There is no way we cannot do it as a country. This was the same thing that they said to China before they started. The West said, no you cannot do vaccines it is too complicated. But they said okay, watch us do it and went in and started doing it. ..We can do it if we believe we can. No doubt it is a very complicated process but we have already come a long way as a country in pharmaceutical manufacturing... "
There is also concern that Biovaccine has the capacity to produce only 20 per cent of Nigeria's vaccine needs. Okafor said: "There is no basis for anybody to do that assessment. No basis at all. As far as I am concerned, the Federal Vaccine Production Laboratory in Yaba, there is nothing to evaluate there because it has been lying fallow for over two decades. So I don't expect that anything there will be useful. We are the ones in charge of that place now and there is nothing there. So there is going to be a new project entirely. The technology has moved on a long time. We now talk about modular factories. So nobody can say that this is the capacity.
"But the fact is that because of the fact that this is a capital intensive project, I do not foresee Biovaccines in the next five years being able to satisfy 20 per cent of our vaccine needs. It is going to be very difficult. That is the reality but nobody can say now that there are facts."
Despite the teething problems, it is hoped that when Nigeria eventually begins local vaccine production, employment would be created, neighbouring African countries would now have to buy vaccines from Nigeria, and above all there would be vaccine security for all Nigerians.