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Does AstraZeneca approval mark COVID-19 exit for Nigeria?

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has approved use of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines in Nigeria, following the World Health Organisation (WHO) authorisation of emergency use.

Mojisola Adeyeye, director-general of NAFDAC, said on Thursday that the agency received the vaccine data a week earlier, after which safety and efficacy evaluation for Nigerians had been assessed.

BusinessDay reported earlier that the agency planned to hasten completion of approval procedures in 15 days, giving the urgent need for vaccine application.

Without fast-tracking, the first approval should have been at the end of April or early May, after the vaccines undergo several months of domestic review process for regulatory approval and licensing.

But with the authorisation by WHO, the agency has leveraged already-established prequalification procedures to cover screening, taking a cue also from approvals done by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and European Medicines Agency (EMA).

For Nigeria, the development comes with hope that the launch of vaccination will build necessary immunity coverage and set the economy on track for recovery, like South Africa, Morocco and Zimbabwe peers are racing to achieve.

The WHO’s green light on Monday marks the end of the anticipation of vaccines through COVAX, a global facility aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

However, health experts have warned that the launch of vaccination process can neither be considered the end of the pandemic in Nigeria nor a reason to let down guards of non-pharmaceutical measures that have been adopted so far.

“America, United Kingdom, Europe and some others have vaccinated millions of people and yet they are recording new cases of infection. So we can’t call it an end,” Oyewale Tomori, Professor of Virology told BusinessDay.

Another commentator, who craved anonymity, told BusinessDay that Nigeria’s failure to start COVID-19 vaccination says volumes about the country’s standing among the community of nations, the quality of governance and leadership.

Not every country with a COVID-19 vaccination programme manufactured its vaccines. South Africa is relying on imported Pfizer vaccines which were rolled out today and this is after receiving one million doses from AstraZeneca which it won’t use.

If Nigeria manufactured vaccines, it would perhaps, be the hub for Africa. Rather, it is slumbering when other nations are connecting to the COVID-19 vaccine supply system; a clear signal that Nigeria is not pulling its weight.

One commentator who chose to remain anonymous said, “Should the people not demand more from their government? This isn’t partisan politics. It is not about opponents of the government. We all must feel hard done by the Buhari government.”

“Approval is a waste of time. Approval does not mean imminent availability of the vaccines and you cannot now talk of exiting COVID-19 really. We still have no clue when the first batch of vaccines will get into the arms of Nigerians”, the commentator said.

According to the NAFDAC’s director-general, there are three additional vaccines undergoing evaluation, but AstraZeneca vaccine has indicated effectiveness against the UK variant of the virus which has been reported in Nigeria.

Nigeria has not yet found the South African variant but genomic sequencing of samples are still ongoing to detect the strain, particularly from samples collected among travellers returning from the United Kingdom and South Africa.

The ChAdOx1 Astrazeneca vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford, is effective by about 90 per cent against the original SARS-COV-2, but shows minimal efficacy against the South Africa variant of the virus, raising worries over use.

However, given its fridge-stable quality, transportation convenience and cost effectiveness at about $4 per dose, a fraction of the cost of Pfizer and moderna vaccines at $26 per dose, it is still considered an effective tool in the face of current vaccine shortages.

Of the 88 million AstraZeneca doses allocated to Africa for the first phase, Nigeria will receive 16 million doses, the largest allocation.

The vaccines are expected to start arriving before the end of February, according to WHO and Nigerian officials.

As of Wednesday, Nigeria had recorded 148,500 cases of the viral infection including 1779 deaths.

Adeyeye disclosed that the agency has over 30 herbal medicine undergoing review for listing.

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