Since the COVID-19 pandemic made a major landfall in the country early this year, the Nigerian science community has paved some fitful but significantly innovative paths in the bid to join a global community of peers wrestling with answers to the conundrum posed by perhaps the most transmissible virus in the recent history of the world.
From five corners of the country's learning centres, virologists and molecular biologists have dived from different directions into the expansive world of COVID-19's imponderable puzzle. At the Redeemer's University Ede; University of Ibadan; Federal University of Technology, Jigawa; the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, and two laboratories affiliated to the Ladoke Akintola University and Adeleke University in Ede, scientists have built local collaborative teams to engage the hydra-headed world of the new COVID-19 ecosystem.
In a PREMIUM TIMES' exploration of the meaning and dimension of these scientific explorations, Kolawole Oladipo, who leads a team of researchers at the Adeleke University, Ede, where words had gone out on a presumed vaccine discovery, cackled in a prolonged laugh on the phone, trying to tame the media narrative that suggested his research team had found a cure to COVID-19 by way of a vaccine.
On June 19, The Guardian reported that "Nigerian Universities' Scientists Discover Vaccine for COVID-19," setting off a mild debate in the country's health journalism ecosystem and unvoiced doubts in the virology community.
"We have a potential vaccine candidate which is different from a vaccine," Mr Oladipo, who holds a doctorate degree in medical virology, immunology and bioinformatics, told PREMIUM TIMES after a prolonged attempt to get him to speak to a reporter after The Guardian story which he claimed broke his trust in the genre of journalism that is in haste to publish rather than accurately inform.
"When you say vaccine, it means all authorities have confirmed it. The report in the media was misreported, which I have no authority over," Mr Oladipo said with a helpless tone, telling this reporter that they (the team) were queried because of the reports which said they had a vaccine which was wrong information, although he did not mention who or where the query came from.
Vexatious as the GUARDIAN report was, it nevertheless highlighted a basic truth: the research received initial funding from Trinity Immunodeficient Laboratory and Helix Biogen Consult, Ogbomosho which was corroborated by Mr Oladipo.
"After trying out some selected processes of vaccine development, the researchers had been able to choose the best potential vaccine candidates for the SARS-CoV-2 and had made the possible latent vaccine constructs," the report read.
After days of trying to rebuild the 'broken trust' in journalism with Mr Oladipo, the team lead on the vaccine development and research at Adeleke University, was ready to speak to this reporter on the history of his work, how things are progressing, and on the fitful but unspoken efforts to mitigate on and provide both temporary, as well as lasting, solutions to the novel coronavirus pandemic in the Nigerian science community.
"We did not exactly set out to develop a vaccine - I was on my way back from school - we were just interested in and investigating why some strains of the virus are more pathogenic than the others in what we call comparative genomics analysis," Mr Oladipo began about the path that set him and his team on the vaccine route.
"At that time, we heard Senegal had developed a diagnostic kit. We knew we had the capacity to go into vaccine construct; a member of the team's PhD course work covered vaccine development; we have been training people on this and we asked ourselves why can't we not go into developing a vaccine?",
The tone from Mr Oladipo's voice, rising and dipping, gave a hint of fulfilment as he narrates how the team would spend 13 hours at the laboratory working 6 days a week .
"From Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m - 8 p.m everyday; even a team member fell sick because of the stress," he spoke of how his 30-member team kept plodding on, seeking to etch a note on the global scientific scoreboard, even as he tried to negotiate a space for his kid, in the background, who was persistently demanding attention, " I want to watch cartoon, I want to watch cartoon."
Try as the researcher may, Mr Oladipo intoned, "Nigeria does not support research and I doubt they will even after COVID-19," with heart-wrenching disappointment. This is the trenchant retort from many researchers that PREMIUM TIMES spoke to in its ongoing reporting of what is happening in the research corridors on Nigerian universities. At the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, the COVID-related research has been halted because of lack of funds.
Julius Oloke, professor of Microbiology and Biotechnology, coordinator of the group and veteran of many bruised encounters like this, is not daunted about the success in the vaccine development. According to him, "By the way, this is not the first time our team is at the forefront of an innovative idea. The team has developed a few products that have been very useful for the existence of humanity."
Adding context to the makeup of the team, the professor of Microbiology said the research team is made up of people from private and public enterprise with some team members in the United States of America. Some members of the team have been involved in the development of some products in the past, he said, adding, "my team has done extensive work on different infectious diseases. We have a product in the market to our credit."
Mr Oloke also spoke on the funding support from the private sector, the timeline of the vaccine development, and the general research backdrop of the country.
"It is normal to be sceptical about a new thing," Mr Oloke said about the current agnostic response to the vaccine work of his wards, adding "It is when it is made available to the public and the efficacy is established that everyone will be convinced. This is not the first time we are introducing a novel product to the populace. As said earlier some members of our team are outside the country."
Although the team still has a lot of work to do in ensuring the vaccine is available to the public in 17 months, Mr Oloke is sure it will protect people against COVID-19 infection and will be made available to citizens regardless of social class. "It is true a lot of research has been done. The outcomes of these researches are not yet available to the public," he said.
The data and findings of the researches conducted were still undergoing peer review as at the time of filing this report, but Mr Oladipo had remarked to PREMIUM TIMES that the comparative genomic analysis was done with data obtained from the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), a global science initiative and primary source for genomic data of influenza viruses and the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
The research, Mr Oladipo said, is ongoing at Helix Biogen Laboratory in Ogbomosho which he owns in partnership with Trinity Immuno-deficient Laboratory, which was reported as a co-funder of the vaccine production, owned by Mr Oloke, the Vice-Chancellor of Precious CornerStone University, who was Mr Oladipo's teacher and supervisor on his doctoral work.
"We are also using the same data from GSAID for the vaccine development, we adopted a method called Reverse Vaccinology, which is getting the genome of the organism and working on it, instead of the isolate which is the living/active virus which no one can work on except with permission from the government," Mr Oladipo said.
This method, he said, is dependent on the type of vaccine being created. The group is creating a Protein Subunit Vaccine.
But the progress of this vaccine development, according to Mr Oladipo, hangs on a balance of the outcome of a meeting with the expert committee on COVID-19 set up by the Federal Ministry of Health scrutinising the integrity of the work they are doing. Asked how he rated the enthusiasm of the government team, Mr Oladipo simply said, "The committee said they will throw their weight on the project."
Responding to the question of possible alternative sponsors and funding pipes outside the government, a major challenge for the researchers now, Mr Oladipo sighed; paused; but when he resumed speaking, the pitched enthusiasm with which the conversation started had lost its redolence. "We are just in the dark, we are just trying to shoot," he said with a manful gut, but promptly tempered the mood again saying "paraventure we find [help] or we continue [along] with our own effort".
However, Mr Oladipo told PREMIUM TIMES the vaccine development though in its early stage, is on an unvarying pace, currently in an early stage of animal trial and still looking to get permission from the ethical community as well as sourcing for funds. "We are moving to the animal trial stage, which will require N100 million taking 3 to 4 months, we are looking for funders; we have been thriving on personal funds," he said, adding that, "we plan to test on Mice, Rabbit and Monkeys; we have submitted our proposal for ethical approval to the Oyo State Ministry of Health".
The team has initiated the cloning and expression of materials for the animal trial, with GenScript Biotech a world-leading biotech company providing life sciences services and products.
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted the Oyo State Ministry of Health, Ayoola Adebisi, the Permanent Secretary, confirmed the ministry received a proposal from the vaccine research team, however, it has been passed to the directorate of planning research and statistics where the decision on it will be made.
"If anybody in Nigeria comes up with a vaccine that is scientifically proven, why not, if not; it is a plus to the citizens. Who will not like to provide a cure for the people? I am sure that whoever comes up with a vaccine will be a Nobel prize winner, " Mr Adebisi remarked.
"We have seen how COVID-19 has shutdown activities everywhere, although we have seen some positive angle in Oyo State: we are building permanent isolation centres across the State and at the end of Covid-19, those centres will be used for something better," Mr Adebisi chimed in on what else the state government is doing at the moment.
At the directorate of planning research and statistics, the director, Abbas Gbolahan, said the proposal at the time of filing this report was yet to be treated; "we have the ethics review committee that will sit on the proposal and we have not met. We are likely to meet on Monday (August 3, 2020)."
Mr Oladipo would later mention that the WHO had contacted Mr Oloke and their effort has been documented and can be found on the WHO's website.
This article was supported by a fellowship grant from AFRICMIL, the accountability and transparency platform that works in the interface of media, information literacy and whistleblower promotion.