By Omobonike Adebayo and Ibukun Asalu

Researchers in Nigeria are looking at the possibility of using the COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are currently being developed in the country as templates for resolving some of the vaccines and infectious disease challenges that may arise in future.

Apart from the challenge of mutation of the virus, they are looking at how their products, facilities and the experiences learned in the course of developing a vaccine for COVID-19 could be used to resolve existing challenges of infectious diseases like Lassa fever, Yellow Fever, Ebola and others that could be identified by their codes.

Some of the researchers are currently working on various versions of COVID-19 vaccines candidates under an alliance formed by the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Uthman Danfodiyo University, Sokoto and Nigeria’s National Veterinary Research Institute (NVRI), Vom, Plateau State, which they hope to use as the take-off platform for their aspirations.

Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Professor Babatunde Salako who gave credence to this said the alliance has applied to the Tertiary Education Funds (TETFunds) for funding support through Uthman Danfodiyo University.

Prof. Salako who spoke on this during the public presentation of a Next Generation Sequencing Machine at NIMR, said, “While NIMR is currently using Gibson assembly cloning in developing multi-valent peptide subunit vaccines against SARS-Cov-2 virus, Uthman Danfodiyo University is employing both bioinformatics and nanotechnology to make DNA vaccines and National Veterinary Institute is suing reverse genetics in engineering New Castle virus to express SARS-Cov-2 proteins. This is a serious effort to be supported by the government. If not for COVID-19, it should be for capacity development for future and current vaccine challenges in Nigeria.”

The NIMR DG cited mutation as one the challenges that have trailed the development of vaccines against COVID-19 as a challenge could be resolved by efforts of researchers under the alliance.

The Federal Government of Nigeria, in November of 2020 signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Biovaccine Nigeria Limited (BVNL) giving rise to a joint venture between the Federal Government and May & Baker Nigeria Limited for the production of locally made vaccines.

The MoU is to serve as an implementation frame work for guaranteeing market access, which is conditional for transfer of technology to indigenous vaccine manufactures.

Sequel to this, renowned virologist, Professor Oyewale Tomori has been appointed to lead a team mandated to work out the local COVID-19 vaccine local production project with Biovaccines.

“Although COVID-19 vaccines are now available around the world, the continuous mutation of the virus forming new strains and variants of concern has made the development of new vaccines inevitable,” Prof. Salako said.

The NIMR DG is also upbeat that, with the robotic enabled Next Generation Sequencing machine, Nigeria can now conduct real time monitoring of SARS-Cov-2 variants in the country.

“Through our networks, new strains (of SARS-Cov-2) are being identified in Nigeria in addition to B.1.35 and other variants making rounds in the world. The new Next Generation Sequencing machine with robotic nucleic extraction and sample preparation system being launched today (March 8, 2021) at the Nigerian Institute of Medical research will support the country’s efforts in the real time monitoring of variants of SARS-Cov-2 in our nation,” he said.

“This will not only serve in the molecular sequencing of SARS-Cov-2, but prepare us in the fight against other infectious agents such as Lassa fever virus, Yellow fever, Ebola, and any other infectious agent characterised by the genetic code.

NIMR has made remarkable contribution in the efforts to control COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria. The institute has innovated and developed an RNA extraction kit and two COVID-19 test kits, one of which can deliver results in less than 40 minutes.

NIMR DG and Minister of State (Health), Mamora inspecting the Genomic Sequencer

Nigeria’s Minister of State for Health, Dr. Olorunnimbe Mamora, who was at NIMR to officially commissioned the DNBSEQ-G50 Next Generation Sequencer (NGS) enabled laboratory said having the machine has put Nigeria in a better position to fight the COVID-19.

The Minister, however, urged the institute to put a sustainable maintenance system in place to ensure durability and efficiency of the machine, considering its relevance to the development of home grown solutions to some of the country’s health challenges.

He is also happy that it will reduce cost and encourage affordability and availability.

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