As part of measures to combat COVID-19, Nigeria, on March 2nd, 2021 received nearly four million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX Facility, a global pooled procurement mechanism that ensures fair and equitable access to vaccines for all 190 participating economies, many of which are developing countries.
The COVAX Facility is a partnership between Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), United Nation Children Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO).
However, this laudable initiative at tackling the COVID-19 pandemic has been undermined by a deluge of misinformation about the efficacy of the vaccines as well as the capacity of healthcare facilities in Nigeria to preserve them in the extremely cold temperatures required. Even more worrisome is the peddling of misinformation about COVID-19 by persons supposedly educated and enlightened.
A case in point is Comrade Adenitan, Akinola, a media practitioner and resident of Osogbo, the capital city of Osun State who belived that the COVID-19 vaccine is a product of medical imperialism perpetuated by panic and fear with the primary objective of generating wealth for the foreign pharmaceutical companies that manufactured them.
Akinola further justified his anti-vaccine stance by claiming that Nigerians have managed malaria and other diseases through traditional and herbal remedies, citing the case of Oyo Governor Seyi Makinde, a COVID-19 survivor, who publicly declared that he recovered from COVID-19 after using various local herbs.
Like Akinola, Felicia Chioma, a market woman in Orelope area of Lagos, was emphatic she would not take the COVID-19 vaccine since she was not sick. She even doubted the reality of COVID-19 in Nigeria comparing it to acute malaria, if at all it exists.
“COVID-19 is not real in Nigeria. It is like acute malaria. Since last year when they told us that there is coronavirus, I have not seen anyone down with COVID-19. Assuming it is real, I would have seen someone who would have been infected with COVID either in this market or on the street where I live,” she said.
Raising concerns about the available storage facilities for COVID vaccine in Nigeria, former President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Sam Ohuabunwa on SciDev.Net, said “as far as I am concerned, Nigeria is not ready to receive the vaccine and distribute it accordingly. There are no -70 degrees Celsius freezers needed to store the [Pfizer] vaccine. If the government claims to have it in place, they should show it to Nigerians.”
A humanitarian worker, Magnus Onunwa in an article titled Vaccination hesitancy: Will history repeat itself? noted that some people who have been vaccinated in Europe are manifesting some adverse effects already, especially blood clotting.
“With the adverse effect, Norway and Denmark have suspended Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, and the development is giving grave concerns to many on the safety of the vaccines even in Nigeria.
“Many Nigerians do not know how potent the newly procured AstraZeneca vaccine is. Some are also bothered about the speed with which things have been done from testing to manufacturing, yet the government has not said anything on compensation for people who develop side effects after the vaccination”, Onunwa said.
A frontline health worker, Dr Boluwatife Afolabi, who spoke to TechCabal, shared his perspective thus: “Health workers in general have fears about the vaccine. Most of the fear is motivated by information they have been exposed to online.”
“There is the fear that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has adverse side-effects, and there are also workers who aren’t taking the vaccine because they assume they had a previous infection and are now immune.”
Records from the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) show that out of the nearly four million COVID-19 vaccines donated to Nigeria, 1,945,273 eligible Nigerians have taken the first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
However, NPHCDA revealed that only 262, 000 have been given to Nigerians since the flag-off of the second phase of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on the 29th of May, 2021.
Since the discovery of COVID-19 in 2020, health experts had announced that the virus is similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARs) that led to the death of nearly 800 persons globally between 2002 and 2003. Today, 4.14 million deaths have occurred due to the pandemic worldwide, thus, preventive measures and vaccines have been proven as the best defense against the virus across the world.
However, anti-vaxxers (those opposed to vaccination) have continued in their campaign to provide false information about the vaccine. These campaigns have been visible across social media even before the advent of the COVAX Vaccines into Nigeria.
On Yandex search engine, our correspondent saw a report flagged on CNBC, in which American physician-scientist and immunologist, Anthony Stephen Fauci said that new data shows that the COVID-19 vaccines currently on the market may not be as effective in guarding against new, more contagious strains of the coronavirus, giving “all the more reason” to vaccinate people faster.
He noted that a handful of new strains of the coronavirus have emerged overseas that have given scientists some cause for concern. Some variants that have been identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil appear to be more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily more deadly.
Fauci, who is White House Health Advisor, noted that some early findings that were published in the preprint server bioRxiv, which is yet to be peer reviewed, indicate that the variant identified in South Africa, known as 501Y.V2, can evade the antibodies provided by some coronavirus treatments and may reduce the efficacy of the current line of available vaccines.
However, in a swift response, the World Health Organisation’s Immunisation Director, Kate O’Brien, that it’s too early to have clear information on whether the emerging variants will have an impact on any of the current vaccines.
O’Brien added that not every variant will act the same way, and the answer will depend on the type of mutation and the vaccines.
“This is really evolving information and there are a number of ways evaluations can be done to understand whether or not any … of the vaccines are less effective against the variants”, O’ Brien said
How Misinformation Impacts Governments’ Efforts
Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Prof Mojisola Adeyeye, said the recommendation for Emergency Use Authorisation of the use of AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine was based on rigorous scientific considerations which include Vaccine quality, Vaccine safety and efficacy and Pharmacovigilance of COVID-19 Vaccines.
She said from the Phases 2/3 conducted, the COVISHIELD (vaccine) was found to be safe and well-tolerated in adults above 18 years of age. The incidence of solicited, unsolicited adverse event (AEs) and Serious Adverse event (SAEs) was comparable in the study control groups. No causally related SAE was caused by the study vaccine.
“Safety of the vaccine is premium to NAFDAC and a lot of efforts are being put into this regulatory function. The Agency initiated multi-stakeholder collaboration with National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), UNICEF, GAVI, WHO and Ministry of Health.”
She added “the focus is to use a holistic approach for the effective immunisation or delivery of the vaccines and monitor any Adverse Events Following Immunisation (AEFI). The multi-stakeholder technical working groups have been meeting to address different issues, from access to distribution to traceability (track and trace) of the vaccines, to monitoring of adverse events following immunization.”
In an exclusive interview with a Professor of Virology and Chairman Ministerial Expert Advisory Committee on COVID-19, Oyewale Tomori said the globally approved COVID-19 vaccines were built up on the research done on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARs2) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome vaccine which was done in 2003 and administered to many people. It was abandoned when SARs2 was not life-threatening.
He however noted that when coronavirus emerged, scientists built their research on the SARs 2 vaccines and that helped in shortening the time frame for the invention of COVID-19 vaccine, adding that it is imperative to note that the time frame of the vaccine is not less than one year of the emergence of coronavirus but is a build up on the knowledge gathered when SARs 2 vaccine was invented.
He said that the vaccine is still the only potent safety net against the coronavirus. “We have seen in some countries, especially the United Kingdom that the more they take the vaccine, the less number of persons going down with the virus. He stressed that the use of herb or other traditional medicines have not be proven scientifically as veritable in the fight against COVID-19,” he added.
On the availability of an adequate storage facility for the vaccines, Tomori said the current Oxford vaccine in Nigeria can be stored at ordinary fridge temperature. “I will be worried about Pfizer vaccine which has to be stored at minus 2 degree. We don’t have the capacity here in Nigeria. In all the Primary Health Centres, they have fridges and supported by solar panels to keep the current vaccines in Nigeria in the right temperature.
On the rumour that many Nigerians have developed HERD immunity against the virus, he said that there is no proof that Nigerians have developed herd immunity against COVID-19.
He noted that the COVID-19 has been with us for more than one year, stressing that, “how many people have herd immunity? Most times when tests are carried out among 100 Nigerians, only 25% have herd immunity, leaving 75% vulnerable to the virus. They are only speculations; there is no proof or facts that confirm it.”
Tomori debunked another common myth about COVID-19. Asked about the effect of weather on COVID-19 Transmission and Mortality in Nigeria, Prof Tomori said that there is currently no conclusive evidence that either weather (short term variations in meteorological conditions) or climate (long-term averages) have a strong influence on transmission.
According to him, “there are parts of Europe that are hotter than Nigeria. The only advantage we have is that people are moving around and our markets are opened. Though, we must emphasise that people should wear their face mask and ensure social distances. The challenge faced in some western countries is because of their cold weather condition makes people congregate indoors. People are often close to each other and that makes the transmission of the virus widespread.”
Also in an interview with a Public Health Pharmacist and the Special Adviser to the Osun State Governor on Public Health, Siji Olamiju, said the vaccine remains potent but it does not rule out the need to ensure the safety protocols put in place by the government.
He noted that vaccine does not mean that someone cannot be infected with coronavirus but the advantage is that the vaccine will prevent someone from dying from the virus.
He also revealed that someone who has been vaccinated can be infected and can also infect others with the virus and that calls for caution and watchfulness.
“Many vulnerable persons who have not been vaccinated are still at risk of being infected with the virus. The rate at which people come down with catarrh, cough and respiratory tract infections have actually reduced,” Olamiju said.
Asked about the spike in the infection rate in January 2021, he said that many Nigerians came back to Nigeria from Christmas celebrations abroad and that called for concerns among health workers. The approach then was to improve on our testing programme and we discovered a lot of positive people who were isolated and treated. The vaccine still remains potent against the virus.”