Nigeria's challenge with the expanding footprints of the coronavirus pandemic is getting a badly needed signal to help from Cuba, the Caribbean nation whose biomedical industry is currently attracting global acclaim for the impressive results its "wonder drug," the interferon Alpha 2B, had in the control and management of the disease in Wuhan, China.
Cuban Ambassador to Nigeria, Clara Escandell, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, said her country which has "historical relationship" with Nigeria will be "attentive to the request of the country" but said no such request had been made "at the moment."
"Cuba and Nigeria have a historical relationship. Through the veins of many Cubans flows blood from the peoples that make up this great country. There is an enormous cultural and idiosyncratic influence from Nigeria in many aspects of our social life, like music" Ms Escandell said stating that if a request is tabled by the Nigerian government, "we analyse the overall issue and agree on what conduct can be followed."
On account of the reputed effectiveness of the Interferon Alpha 2B, about a dozen countries are already knocking on the doors of the Havana government seeking Cuban help.
With an eye on the role the Interferon Alpha 2B played in China, the Italian government invited the Cubans who have sent in 50 biomedical experts from its Cuban Medical Brigade "Henry Reeve," who are veterans in solving complex health situations and had built experience in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea and in disaster management in countries like Haiti and Pakistan when they were shaken by earthquakes, according to Ms Escandell.
Although the Interferon Alpha 2B is not a vaccine, it is "one of the 30 medicines chosen by the Chinese National Health Commission to fight the virus" according to Helen Yaffe, who teaches Cuban and Latin American development at the University of Glasgow and who has provided one of the broadest insights on the history and trajectory of the drug.
In a recent blog on the platform of the London School of Economics, Ms Yaffe explains how Cuba's early entry into the biotech industry paved a path for the small Island nation to harness international expertise and develop medicines to fight a range of diseases from dengue fever and meningitis to the COVID19.
While the Interferon Alpha 2B had been used in the effective management of meningitis, some cancer, dengue fever and HIV, Ms Yaffe argues that the drug's brightest moment was the 1989-1990 meningitis campaign when three million Cubans most at risk were vaccinated.
"Subsequently, 250,000 young people were vaccinated with the VA-MENGOC-BC vaccine, a combined vaccine for meningitis types B and C. The vaccine recorded a 95 per cent efficacy rate overall, with 97 per cent in the high-risk age group of three months to six years. Cuba's meningitis B vaccine was awarded a UN Gold Medal for global innovation. This was Cuba's meningitis miracle," she argued.
Last week in Lagos the public interest litigant, Femi Falana, asked the federal government to approach the Cubans and seek help to contain the COVID-19 rampage. Since then, a string of virologist, medical professionals, and civil society activists have also supported the call.
The President, Nigeria Medical Association, Francis Faduyile, welcomes any foreign experts who want to come and assist Nigeria combat the Covid-19 outbreak in the country.
Although Mr Faduyile worries that the country is yet to fully explore the expertise of the professionals available in the country, he merely asked that "care and caution is important in engaging external support when the government has not made use of what is available on ground."
Mr. Faduyile also wants a more symbiotic relation that enriches rather than use Nigerians as what he calls "Guinea pigs' but Ms Escandell said "Cuban scientific institutions are fully prepared to work alongside Nigerian ones, stating that "these issues have been discussed in the past and it is a permanently open door and opportunity. The most important thing is to go deeper among the interested and concerned institutions on what we can do together."
If such collaborations will proceed now, it will be institutions such as LABIOFAM, the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the Immunoassay Center, according to Ms Escandell, that will take the lead, a point that already caught the attention of Idowu Obasa, the Chief Executive Officer, of Biomedical Services, a major biogenetic and pharmaceutical concern in Ilorin, Kwara State, who told PREMIUM TIMES that "we shall soon be opening dialogue with the Cubans ... we have great respect for the biogenetic programme in the country particularly the research and outcomes on malaria, hepatitis and meningitis."
Training her gaze at the enormity of the challenge and the possible dimensions of human suffering of COVID-19, the chief executive of the Vaccine Network, Chika Offor, asked the Nigerian government to "accept all offers of help it can get to combat the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak ravaging the country."
Mrs Offor pointed to the novelty of the virus and counselled federal authorities not to be trapped in a tunnel vision because as she puts it, "the virus is a new one and most countries do not have sole knowledge of how to treat the virus. [So] it is a learning time and every country has been learning one or two things about the disease and containing its spread.
"It is not about competition, so there is no harm in accepting a helping hand. We need to welcome the experience of countries where they have recorded successes in containing the disease," she said.
The chief executive officer of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC, Auwal Musa, said a realistic assessment of the COVID 19 trail in the country ought to prompt the government in feverish search for help from those who have expertise in the management of the situation "from the international community especially Cuba."
The government is expected to actively seek support from other countries that have the experts before it gets out of hand. It is because most Nigeria officials are not sincere and not willing to accept the realistic conditions of health service in the country.
Mr Musa painted a sober sight of the country's health landscape, querying why experts who have gone out of the country, find no inspiration to address "our dilapidated hospitals, address the oddity of money budgeted for the hospitals but are not used rightly or not even released, and why we don't have testing kits, and facilities to combat Covid-19."
The claims around the Interferon Alpha 2B is adequate reason, Mr Musa said, why it is important that the Nigeria government accept Cuban health offers and assemble our medical experts to sit down with them to see if the drugs will be applicable for use in Nigeria.
For Abdulfatai Ibrahim, a medical virologist, Interferon Alpha 2B could be an effective treatment for the COVID-19 disease. He rests his argument on the history of the drug in "the treatment of viral diseases such as hepatitis B and other, [and that] Interferon Alpha 2B has been proven to be effective in stopping the replication of virus in the cells."
Mr Ibrahim's views are in sync with Ms Yaffe who reasons that: "since its first application to combat dengue fever, interferon has shown its efficacy and safety in the therapy of viral diseases including hepatitis types B and C, shingles, HIV-AIDS, and dengue. Because it interferes with viral multiplication within cells, it has also been used in the treatment of different types of carcinomas. Only time will tell if Interferon Alfa 2B proves to be the wonder drug in tackling COVID-19."