Nigeria has what it takes to become a leader in healthcare – Vice President Osinbajo

*There are world class experts here, we must build local capacity

*Health sector reforms committee an important vehicle of transformation

Nigeria must take its own destiny in its hands, build local capacities that will ensure health access to the people, and take advantage of the opportunity to become a leading nation in healthcare.

This is the submission of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, who is of the firm belief that there are already clear indications that “we are well on the way,” to getting the job done.

Speaking today in Abuja at the International Conference on Health Access beyond COVID-19, Prof. Osinbajo highlighted the country’s strengths in the areas of healthcare while emphasising major steps the country needs to take in order to improve its heath system.

According to him, one of the eye openers from the COVID-19 pandemic “is that despite infrastructural weaknesses we have an experienced and robust public health system, peopled by some of the best personnel in the world, but more importantly (is) the huge opportunities for becoming a leading nation in healthcare.”

Buttressing his point on building local capacity, the VP noted that the pandemic revealed further that *“every nation is on her own in a global pandemic, and how vaccine-rich nations at some point even banned exports in order to meet local needs, it is clear that we must take our destiny in our own hands. And there is great potential.

“Last December, the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) launched a new set of COVID-19 test kits that can produce results in 57 minutes. The new kit was designed by Joseph Shaibu, a molecular virologist at NIMR.”

The VP declared that “the healthcare system of our dreams is ahead of us, we know what we want and what is possible. We have the men and women with the required expertise; what we need is more diligent and focused management.

“Only recently the President established the Healthcare Reform committee which I have the privilege of chairing. That may well be at least one of the vehicles for ensuring that we are able to get some of our dreams comes true.”

Establishing the health sector reform committee is one of the ways the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration is making concerted efforts towards transforming the country’s health sector.

According to the VP, other ongoing measures include funding for healthcare research and developing solutions in pharmaceuticals and medical consumables; and the health sector component of the Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP).

“It is evident that the way forward is more funding for health care research and for innovators to develop solutions in pharmaceuticals and medical consumables, the VP disclosed.

He continued: “Our administration established the Healthcare Sector Intervention Fund Facility which has disbursed N76.98 billion to finance the acquisition and installation of critical medical equipment as well as the expansion of production lines in various pharmaceutical companies across the country.

“The Central Bank of Nigeria is also supporting a number of research and development initiatives in the health sector. In all, a total of N233 billion in grants has been disbursed.”

“In our Economic Sustainability Plan, designed to mitigate and take advantage of the consequences of the pandemic. One of the cross-cutting issues identified for action was the development of Nigeria’s capacity to become Africa’s hub for the manufacture of generic drugs.”

Prof. Osinbajo further emphasized government’s commitment in supporting pharmaceutical and research agencies to develop and manufacture vaccines locally, and so enhance Nigeria’s domestic pharmaceutical capacity.

“In his Independence Day speech, the President also noted that the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority is raising a $200 million fund for this initiative that will complement the Central Bank of Nigeria’s ongoing N85 billion Healthcare Sector Research and Development Intervention Scheme to support local researchers in the development of vaccines and drugs to combat communicable and non-communicable diseases, including COVID-19,” the Vice President restated.

He further explained that Nigeria‘s existing public health infrastructure was crucial in helping the country respond effectively to the global pandemic.

“The Ebola outbreak of 2014 and our ongoing battle with Lassa fever and our successes with polio eradication helped us to tighten our epidemic contingency plans, strengthen our emergency coordination and surveillance capacities, and also to invest in public health laboratories,” he asserted.

Also, he recalled that during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, between 2014 to 2016, “the first case in Nigeria was confirmed and sequenced at the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), The Center was also instrumental to containing the epidemic in the sub-region by the development of a 15-minute Rapid Diagnostics. This method was approved by the World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration, FDA of the US government.

“One of the key lessons we learned from our response to the Ebola outbreak was the need to build systems in ‘peace time’ that can be used during outbreaks. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) which was founded in 2011 was made an independent government agency in 2018 as we prioritised the strengthening of our public health infrastructure… it is evident that the NCDC is one of the best prepared and resourced, at least in Africa.”

He also acknowledged the impressive work of the ACEGID, at Redeemers University in Ede, Osun State Nigeria. The ACEGID team led by Prof. Christian Happi analysed the sample of the first COVID-19 case in Nigeria, and sub-Saharan Africa.

In recognition of the work of Nigerian scientists by international bodies, VP Osinbajo added that, “Prof. Happi and his team have also produced a ground breaking rapid test, certified by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA of the US government. It costs around $3, much less than Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests. In addition, the test does not require highly equipped laboratories that tend to be too expensive. But more remarkably they are developing a Nigerian anti-Covid vaccine.

The VP also noted the work of the Africa Centre of Excellence for Neglected Tropical Diseases and Forensic Biotechnology (ACENTDFB) led by Professor Y.K Ibrahim, which he said has been performing mass testing. “In collaboration with the Kaduna State Government and its University Teaching Hospital, they established a facility where COVID-19 samples are analysed. The facility is part of the Nigeria CDC national testing centers,” he added.

According to the Vice President, “we were able to scale up on testing and case management capacity, quickly activating 120 laboratories nationwide – from 5 just before the pandemic – most of them public laboratories. Also, we expanded the footprint of our sovereign public health response capabilities especially at the subnational levels and in areas where previously such capabilities did not exist.”

Prof. Osinbajo also noted the widely acclaimed work of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, in coordinating the national response, commending the effort led by Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha.

“The task force swiftly issued and enforced COVID-19 protocols for travel and general movement. When the first doses of vaccines came, the task force developed the protocols and the public health system already used to mass vaccination campaigns, deployed across the country in every nook and cranny of Nigeria so that the first eligible vaccine candidates received their vaccinations seamlessly,” he said.

Furthermore, Prof. Osinbajo commended the work of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), which hosted the conference for developing a standardized hand-sanitizer and made the formula publicly accessible for mass production.

Going forward, the VP stated that African countries must take proactive approach in responding to the slow pace of getting access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“Although we have received some help from friendly nations and the Covax alliance, less than 4% of our eligible population will have been vaccinated by the end of the year. There is no question that we cannot afford not to have our own vaccine production facilities,” he stated.

The VP also called for a private sector-led initiative to make the country self-sufficient in basic drugs and in being a net exporter to Africa, noting, again, that Nigeria has the human capital to build a more efficient health care system.

For instance, he disclosed that “Nigeria is in talks with the World Bank’s private lending arm and other lenders to raise about $30 million to help finance a vaccine plant, Biovaccines Nigeria Ltd. Chaired by Prof. Oyewale Tomori; 49% of the company owned by the Nigerian government, with the balance held by May & Baker Nigeria Plc. There are plans to begin construction of the plant in the first quarter of next year.”

Earlier in his speech, the VP listed other lessons learnt from the global pandemic such as the unpreparedness of more developed countries to the pandemic and the public health crises that followed; the need to persuade both the educated and non-educated citizen on taking precautions to prevent infection; false information and the danger of conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine; and the reason why individual countries need to take responsibility in locally tackling a global health crisis.

As the VP noted, “these eye-openers should be a guide as to navigating the pathway to assuring health access and socio-economic development beyond Covid 19.”

The conference themed “Health Access and Social-Economic Development Beyond COVID-19: The First Multisectoral Approach to Solution Finding” is a two-day event that has several Nigerian scientists and Vice Chancellors in attendance. Emeritus Professor of Virology, Prof. Oyewale Tomori was also present.

Other speakers at the ceremony where the VP declared the conference opened included the Director-General of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development, NIPRD, Dr. Obi Adigwe; NAFDAC Director- General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye and the keynote speaker, Prof. Joseph Fortunak of the Howard University, who titled his lecture: Assuring Health Access and Socio-economic Development Beyond COVID-19.

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