While global authorities are shuffling plans to land the COVID-19 vaccine to save their populations from the rapidly spreading coronavirus, a Nigerian governor is discouraging people from taking the vaccines.
The Nigerian government said it is expecting at least 100,000 doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech approved COVID-19 vaccines by the end of January through the COVAX co-financing public-private facility.
But several global health experts and bodies told Newsmen it is “almost impossible” for Nigeria to start receiving vaccines this January.
Aso Rock officials said both President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo will take the COVID-19 vaccines live on TV to allay the growing vaccine hesitancy among Nigerians.
Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti, who addressed journalists in Abuja after meeting with President Buhari last week said he and his colleagues will also take the vaccines on live television. “We too will like to demonstrate to our citizens that we believe that vaccines would work,” he said.
“Don’t forget, we have a lot of experience on this. Governors Forum managed the polio vaccines administration in the country and we have garnered a lot of experience,” said Mr Fayemi, the chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum.
But Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State in a video widely circulating on Facebook since Sunday morning could be seen discouraging a jeering crowd of supporters from taking the vaccines.
“…They want to use the (COVID-19) vaccines to introduce the disease that will kill you and us. God forbid!” Mr Bello said.
The governor hinged his criticism of the foremost COVID-19 vaccines currently being rolled out in nearly 50 countries globally on the breakneck speed at which they were developed.
“These vaccines are being produced in less than one year of COVID-19. There is no vaccine yet for HIV, malaria, cancer and for several diseases that are killing us… We should draw our minds back to what happened in Kano during the polio vaccines that crippled and killed our children. We have learned our lessons.
“If they say they are taking the vaccines in the public allow them take their vaccines. Don’t say I said you should not take it but if you want to take it open your eyes before you take the vaccines,” he said.
The governor did not provide any evidence to back his claims that COVID-19 could be dangerous to the health even though the fast development of the foremost jabs raised concerns.
Vaccines typically take at least a decade to develop, test and manufacture, according to scientists. It took 18 years for scientists to successfully develop a vaccine against polio.
But the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were developed at breakneck speed in less than a year to become the fastest ever in human history.
According to researchers, the only difference between the COVID-19 vaccines and their predecessors is the use of the genetic material mRNA which is easy to make in a laboratory.
Before now, vaccines typically use a weakened version of the pathogen or a protein piece of it and because these are grown in eggs or cells, developing and manufacturing vaccines takes a long time.
But by using just the genetic material that makes the spike glycoprotein – the protein on the surface of the coronavirus that is essential for infecting human cells – the design and manufacture of the vaccine is simplified.
Manufacturing an mRNA vaccine rather than a protein vaccine can save months, if not years, health experts say.
The mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna are faster to develop as they do not require companies to produce protein or weakened pathogen for the vaccine.
Another factor that accelerated the vaccine development was the swift and efficient recruitment of patients for clinical trials as well as the urgent need for it due to the unprecedented spread of the COVID-19 infections.
Also, there are no scientific evidence yet that the vaccines already in use have caused severe side effects or led to the death of any recipient.
Not the first time
This is not the first time the Kogi governor would be making controversial assertions about COVID-19 vaccines.
In a Channel’s TV programme last December, Mr Bello also questioned the need for Nigeria to procure COVID-19 vaccines.
Then he backed his argument with an analogy of varying temperatures between Nigeria and other climes, saying that “what is applicable over there may not work in Nigeria”.
“We don’t need to participate in this marketing of COVID-19 vaccine. We should channel the money we want use to buy the vaccines to other things. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) should give the right advice to the president.”
The governor also said “it is better to invest in tackling more deadly diseases that are killing people everyday, not COVID-19 that has 99.9 per cent recovery rate.”
The recovery rate from the disease is quite remarkably high in Nigeria. But that does not mean the disease is not deadly.
Last Friday, Nigeria announced its deadliest day of the pandemic with 23 lives lost under 24 hours, the country’s sharpest daily fatality toll.
Last week, which is the third week of the new year, the country recorded 70 deaths, the weekly highest in the new year. The country also recorded 50 and 48 deaths in the first and second week of 2021 respectively.
In the past four weeks, there have been over 200 fatalities as a result of COVID-19 complications in Nigeria.
Mr Bello seems to be following the part of Dino Melaye, a former Nigerian senator who had also expressed doubts in the vaccines despite the approved ones going through various scientific and approval processes including by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In a viral video which was shared on social media platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram weeks ago, the former senator advised Nigerians and Africans “not to accept the use of any vaccine for now,” adding that they could cause fatalities.
Like Messrs Bello, Messrs Melaye did not also provide any evidence to back his claims.
Mr Bello has repeatedly controverted the coronavirus response strategy in Nigeria, a situation that pitted him against federal officials and health professionals.
The governor had in one instance described the deadly disease as a hoax.
Despite glaring evidence of acute under-testing for coronavirus in Kogi, Mr Bello last December claimed a widespread testing campaign was undertaken in his state and nobody had been infected.
“After the earlier misunderstanding we had with the federal health officials and the NCDC, we later allowed them to step in and test people,” he said in an interview aired on Channels TV last December.
“After one month of intensive testing by their workers and officials, not one single person tested positive. The NCDC (Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control), ministry of health and my state incident management team went around. They went to institutions, market places, motor parks, streets, villages, towns and cities and not one single individual was confirmed positive. When students are resuming schools, we carry out tests on both indigenes and non-indigenes, indigenes and there has never been one single positive test.”
The issue Mr Bello referenced occurred earlier in the year, around May, and his claims of mass testing since then were at best, false, according to the NCDC general fact-sheet on COVID-19 response by states.
Kogi, a state of almost 3.5 million people, had tested only 425 samples by December 11, the national situational report published December 19 by the NCDC showed.
While states are solely in charge of their coronavirus management and response, the NCDC supports and receives daily infection information from them which is then published by the agency on its microsite.
The general fact-sheet, published weekly, contains information on states with reported laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases, recoveries, deaths, samples tested and active cases.
The COVID-19 situation in Nigeria’s North-central state of Kogi has been enmeshed in controversies, accusations and counter-accusations between governments and health authorities even before the index case was recorded.
At the time, the state’s COVID-19-free status raised a lot of concern especially because the state sits in-between states with rising numbers of infections.
Federal officials and health authorities believe the state officials are discouraging tests for people with symptoms of COVID-19.
On May 8, health minister, Osagie Ehanire, admitted that efforts to support Kogi’s response to the pandemic failed after a delegation including NCDC officials “had to flee the state for fear of being quarantined by the Kogi State government.”
“We tried to send a team of the Ministry of Health and the NCDC into Kogi but there were some differences there to processes,” the minister had said.
When the index case was reported in Kogi on May 27, state officials said they will not accept any test result “conducted outside the state”, a position described as ‘unfortunate and condemnable’ by the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA).
Health experts believe the situation in Kogi does not just raise serious concerns but has also made it more difficult to have a synchronised national strategy.