Nigeria has extended its search for COVID-19 vaccines to Russia and India in a bid to get enough supplies to meet its target of vaccinating 40 per cent of its population by the end of 2021.
The federal government said it has obtained vaccine samples from Russia and India for testing by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
The latest move came in the wake of a disclosure by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) that 75 health workers have tested positive for the virus in the last one week.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, told his audience at a media briefing by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 yesterday in Abuja that the federal government is strictly monitoring development in the international scene, especially on the procurement of vaccines for the country.
However, he expressed concern over the report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the scramble for the limited quantities of vaccines by powerful nations.
Although the minister did not disclose the names of the vaccines from both Russia and India, Sputnik V is the first registered vaccine against COVID-19 in Russia while India last month formally approved the emergency use of two vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin.
Covishield, a brand of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured locally by the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer.
Covaxin, the local vaccine, however, was approved despite the absence of data on how efficient it can be. It has yet to go through large-scale trials.
Ehanire explained that Nigeria cannot be left out of the global scramble for the vaccines as the federal government owes it a duty to protect the people against the pandemic.
He said: "We have been keeping a strict eye on the vaccines' scene and those who follow international news would have heard of the scramble for vaccines, which has pitted some countries against each other in Europe, as wealthy high-income countries have prepaid to allocate vaccines to them.
A spokesperson for the World Health Organisation estimated that 95 per cent of vaccines manufactured globally so far have gone to only 10 rich and powerful countries.
According to him, Nigeria is joining the WHO in urging for global equity in the allocation of vaccines, since the pandemic is a threat to mankind and not only to any country alone.
Ehanire said the Director-General of the WHO, Mr. Tedros Adhanom, has repeatedly stated that no country is safe till all countries are safe.
The minister added that the date of the first arrival of vaccines in Nigeria has kept changing because the decision lies with the manufacturers who already have heavy commitments.
According to him, Nigeria has been advised to expect the first batch of vaccines from COVAX from February.
He said the government will continue to review plans to ensure a smooth rollout of vaccines.
He stated that the federal government will need the support of state governments on remuneration of vaccinators.
"The NAFDAC is the approving agency for all vaccines that will be used in Nigeria and this approval is required and must be sought before importation. Till date, only two companies have submitted the samples of their vaccines to NAFDAC, where the evaluation is ongoing.
"Vaccines without NAFDAC certification are illegal and may be dangerous in the light of fake vaccines, said to be already in circulation in parts of Europe," he said.
On the status of vaccine procurement drive, Ehanire said Nigeria has been allocated over 41 million doses by the African Union's African Vaccines Acquisition Task Team (AVATT).
The country is also expecting 15 million of about 42 million doses from COVAX.
"Altogether, it will give us coverage for over 50 per cent of our target for 2021, if we can access all doses promised," he said.
Ehanire said the Ministry of Health and its agencies will be engaging with various segments of society in the coming weeks to sensitise them on Infection Prevention and Control and vaccines.
The Director-General of the NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, in his update, lamented that the country has been witnessing increasing casualties from the pandemic since the beginning of the new year.
He said 75 health workers had tested positive for the virus in the last week, a situation he described as tragic.
Ihekweazu advised all health workers to strictly adhere to the health protocols to avoid being victims of the pandemic, adding that the lives of other Nigerians who might be infected by diseases depends to a large extent on their ability to come to their rescue.
COVID-19 Vaccines Now Expected in April, Says FG
Also yesterday, the federal government yesterday said the expected delivery date of COVID-19 vaccines has shifted from February ending to April.
Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, at a sensitisation meeting on COVID-19 vaccines organised for Christian leaders by the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), in conjunction with the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Abuja, said the vaccines would not start arriving until March or even April.
The federal government had earlier announced that it would receive the first batch of 100,000 vaccines the end of January.
It later shifted the arrival date to February due to what it described as manufacturing issues by the producing company.
NPHCDA Executive Director, Dr. Shuaib Faisal, had said on Sunday that the delay in the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines was because countries were negotiating price reduction, safety and effectiveness as well as the required logistics to stop ongoing community transmission of the virus.
"While the country appreciates the global effort through the COVAX facility to ensure low and medium-income countries like Nigeria have fair and equitable access to the COVID - 19 vaccines, the delay in accessing vaccines means that eligible countries would have to explore all channels that can ensure fair prices, safe and effective vaccines for its populace," he stated.
The latest shift in the arrival date comes as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, stated that the federal government will ensure that at least 40 per cent of the country's population is vaccinated before the end of the year.
Ehanire, at the sensitisation programme, said: "In order to ensure full benefits of vaccines, at least 76 per cent of the population must be immunised.
"We have been working on strategies to procure these vaccines and I can say that from our activities so far, we have secured for the books up to 46 per cent of the vaccines for eligible persons, although they will not start arriving until March or even April."
Speaking on the challenges facing the introduction of the vaccines in the country, Ehanire said there is a groundswell of resistance, hesitancy or even hostilities, which the federal government is battling to deal with.
On the imminent health danger facing Nigeria with the second wave of the pandemic, the minister said the disease is no respecter of any kind of limits or boundaries.
"It discriminates according to age and state of health, but COVID-19 does not discriminate according to tribe or religion or place of origin. In the face of this threat to mankind, it is imperative that we gather as one people, with one voice to deliberate on how to save ourselves and use all means to survive," he said.
Ehanire urged religious leaders to support the government's efforts and to always verify the information they receive, especially through the social media and other sources so that people are not misled.
In his remarks, the SGF said the federal government is working on a plan to vaccinate 40 per cent of the population this year.
On the need for greater access to the vaccines, Mustapha said it behoves world leaders to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccines so that every country will have access to the vaccines, adding that until everyone is vaccinated, no one can be safe from the scourge.
He identified some of the challenges facing the efforts to contain the pandemic in Nigeria to include scepticism by the people, lack of compliance with COVID-19 health protocols, poor response to testing and inaccurate record of COVID-19 infection and casualty figures.
While welcoming participants to the meeting, Shuaib said traditional and religious leaders had played influential roles in previous vaccination campaigns, hence the need to partner them to ensure success in the current effort.
He urged religious leaders to help the federal government in checking misinformation on COVID-19 vaccines.
Mustapha said: "I would like to respectfully ask our religious leaders to actively challenge inaccurate and harmful messages that could threaten an effective public health response to the pandemic and encourage all communities to promote healthy living.
"As we fight the spread of disinformation and misinformation, I ask religious leaders to leverage your networks and communication capacities to support the government's recommended public health measures -- from physical distancing, use of a face mask to good hygiene -- and to ensure that faith-based activity, including worship, religious ceremonies and burial practices, comply with these measures."
CAN President, Rev. Samson Ayokunle, enjoined church leaders to sensitise their members to adhere strictly to all measures approved by the government to tackle COVID-19, including non-pharmaceutical measures and vaccines.
He said: "We should not be myopic and allow this virus to cut short our dreams. It is not good to show reckless confidence as being done by some faith leaders that COVID-19 is non-existent and that it is not for Christians. We have seen Christians very close to us who were hit by the wave of COVID-19 and you cannot say that they were all sinners.
"If you love your congregation, this is the time to teach them restraint; that is the way of wisdom. If COVID-19 is a joke, why is it killing people in advanced nations where they have strong health infrastructure? Britain and America are under the siege of COVID-19."