Chinedu Ugwu, Postdoctoral research fellow/Senior Lecturer, Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of infectious diseases (ACEGID),/Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Redeemer’s University Ede, in this interview with BusinessDay’s FRANK ELEANYA, speaks on the business of scientific research in Nigeria. He shares insight on how to turn Nigeria’s disease burdens into opportunities and the big role Nigerian government needs to play to reverse the country’s scientific research decline.
What is your view of the scientific environment in Nigeria?
It is difficult to talk about the entire scientific community in Nigeria. I will use biological science as an example. From the time of my internship in Nigeria which was in the early 2000 and now as a scientific researcher in Nigeria, I will say there is enormous growth. Let me give you an example of what I mean by growth and progress that has been made. In early 2000, there were several things you couldn’t do in Nigeria in biological science. You couldn’t do genomic sequencing, you couldn’t sequence pathogens like viruses and bacteria to know their genome or DNA. you couldn’t do some immunological work to see how the body responds to some of the incursion by the viruses.
Fast forward to now, for example, during the Ebola outbreak, if you remember in 2013, Nigeria was able to contain our outbreak as early as possible because we were able to detect the Liberian diplomat when she came into the country. Because of that, we were able to contain the spread. You would think that was an easy feat, but it wasn’t because if we didn’t have the tools and the African Centre of Excellence for Genomic for Infectious Disease (ACEGID) where I work, and if we did not have the expertise at that time it would have been a different story. But because we already have the expertise, we were able to diagnose the virus using the molecular tools, we were able to sequence the virus.
Another example is the current sars-cov-2 (COVID-19) pandemic, if you also follow the news, you know that Nigeria provided the first genomic sequence of the virus from Africa. Again prior to 2000, you wouldn’t hear of such on the continent. Normally, it is the West that will tell us we have this problem and they will help us to diagnose it. Now that is not the case because we can do this ourselves and we could function independently. So we are able to provide the sequence of sars-vol-2 from the continent. The importance of that is it could also help to monitor the disease outbreak. Now you can hear different variants of the viruses moving. Such information we share with NCDC to guide their public health intervention policies. I think there is enormous progress because we can function now and we are not so dependent on the west. It is not just Nigeria, other African countries are making progress too. Uganda just declared Ebola-free within 113 days. That was not the case in 2013. So you can see the progress being made.
Do I think there is room for more work? Definitely. I think we need to collaborate more. We need more funding, especially from the government. We need to start moving academic research from the institutions. It shouldn’t be limited to academic institutions and I think that has been the case in Nigeria. We need NGOs and industries to also start doing scientific research. That increases the horizon, provides employment, and also improves our output.
What are the barriers discouraging the private sector from participating in science research in Nigeria?
Funding is a problem because, beyond money, you need to have an idea. My director normally says that African people just haven’t understood the business of scientific process and how to utilise it. So he normally makes this point that Africa is blessed but cursed with an infectious pathogen. We carry the biggest burden of these diseases and we realise the cost but what we haven’t done is how do we convert these into resources because if we could provide a lot of these pathogens we could generate a lot of resources. The industry players have not seen the blessed part of this problem and I think that is why many of them struggle to engage. I also think we haven’t had the best environment because research requires an enabling environment. I think that is the problem a lot of them have.
However, I don’t think we should dwell on the challenges. An interesting thing you will notice is many of the big pharmaceutical companies have a presence in Nigeria, but how much research is GSK, Sanofi, and others producing out of Nigeria? But when you look at them in the US, you will see the scientific research coming out of there. They haven’t seen the gain for scientific research coming out of Nigeria. But we are making progress. Recently with the sars-cov-2, there was a push toward manufacturing vaccines locally. The World Health Organisation (WHO) mentioned 6 countries in Africa that will be vaccine hubs for mRNA (Messenger Ribonucleic acid) vaccine technology transfers. South Africa is the lead hub. There is Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia.. The entire vaccine that was used during the pandemic was gotten from the West. The WHO is saying that we can’t depend on aids and donations. The only way we can be proactive in fighting any of these diseases is when we can do things on our own. The WHO is driving this push toward empowering African countries to also get into vaccine manufacturing. I think there is a little progress. Moderna is working towards building a plant in two African countries.
Highlight some of the factors that make an environment an enabling one for scientific research.
One of them is to avoid political interference. Let the researchers do their work. Provide funding and security. Also, provide an environment for training and expertise. The Japa syndrome Nigeria is facing now, I don’t think we know the real effect until five to ten years in the future we realise the cost of having to employ Nigerians from the diaspora to do research on the continent. That is a big challenge. Why are these people leaving? They are leaving because of insecurity. They are leaving because there is not enough funding and there is not enough interest in research. The government needs to figure out how to create improvements in interest in research, improvements in security, funding, and training. When you provide all of these I think we will benefit a lot.
Explain briefly your research work at ACEGID
We are building an immunosurveillance platform at ACEGID called ARISE which is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Cambridge Africa Alborada fund. With ARISE, we can provide patient immune data to match pathogen genomic sequence in real-time. Our data will help to understand the protective immune response to different pathogens and will inform the design and production of the best vaccine and therapeutics. We just recently published our work (nature scientific reports (https://rdcu.be/c20qc), on the protective immune response to Lassa fever virus from survivors in Southern Nigeria. This work detail the type of immunity you see from those who survive Lassa fever disease and will provide a benchmark for assessing the current Lassa virus vaccines in a clinical trial.
How important is collaboration in research?
For scientific research to succeed in Nigeria, you have to collaborate. We have a lot of collaborations in the UK (University of Cambridge) in the US (Harvard University) etc and they support us with scientific expertise and resources we don’t have. For example, we are building the ARISE platform through training from our different collaborators sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Scientific research is global and to be effective you have to tap into the global community. However, don’t come empty-handed have something to offer so you are not just a recipient.