Ever since the December 2020 identification of the more deadly strain of COVID-19, known as the B.1.617.2 or Delta variant in India, countries of the world have been increasingly alerted to the reality that the new emergency is such that requires utmost caution, going by its more contagious nature and the rapidity of spread. This warning is one that must be taken very seriously.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which recently announced the transmission of the new variant to 132 countries, admitted that the world is “in a very dangerous period of the pandemic.’’ It added that the Delta variant is the currently dominant strain in India and Britain and has already started ravaging countries like Portugal, Singapore, Russia, Indonesia, Uganda, and Senegal in the West African coast.
Indeed, within the last two months, the Portuguese health department has registered over 1,100 infections of the new dangerous variant, leading to stiffer restrictions on international travel. Similarly, the United States’ Centres for Disease Control (CDC) announced that “the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that causes COVID-19”; thus, warning that even fully vaccinated people must begin to wear masks both outdoors and indoors in places with high transmission rates.
This is why the situation in Nigeria is particularly concerning. Since the detection of the deadly Delta variant in the country on 9 July 2021, the number of cases has been on a steady rise. As of the time of this writing, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said it has recorded over 170,000 cases of infection, with over 2,000 deaths.
Curiously, however, there has been a general apathy towards COVID-19 safety guidelines in most parts of the country. Indeed, there have been such flagrant violations of necessary precautions, as were not so widespread in battling the even less threatening strains and waves of the virus. This portends grave danger that could have a more severe effect on lives, livelihood and the general economy of the nations.
As things stand, visitors coming into the country are not strictly compelled to adhere to travel restrictions and safety precautions. Ideally, according to the Federal Government’s COVID-19 protocols, passengers arriving in the country are required to proceed on a seven-day self-isolation period, after which they are to report at a designated laboratory to undergo necessary tests. Reports however indicate that most of these visitors refuse to comply with these stipulations, thereby leaving their true COVID-19 status uncertain.
For instance, it was recently reported that over 10,000 inbound travellers to Lagos shunned the compulsory COVID-19 test and isolation. Why such brazen violation should be allowed at a time that other countries are enforcing stringent rules, even on their own citizens, is unfathomable.
More worrisome is the fact that these developments are coming at a time when the challenge of unequal distribution of vaccines across the world remains unresolved. In the words of WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Vaccine equity is the challenge of our time. And we are failing.” With Nigeria parading a moribund health system and having barely vaccinated one per cent of its 200 million population, one would have expected the nation to be more ardent in enforcing safety measures than the more advanced countries. But the reverse is currently the case and the prognosis for the nation is a frightening one.
Nigeria currently remains very vulnerable to the onslaught of COVID-19, especially the more dangerous Delta variant, with no vaccine in sight and no serious observance or enforcement of safety protocols. Concrete steps must be taken to reverse this. Efforts must be made to enlighten the populace that the threat of infection is even more serious than before; hence the need to comply with safety guidelines.
More importantly, we call on the Nigerian government – which had been a producer of Yellow Fever vaccine in previous years but stopped abruptly – to renew support for local vaccine production. While it is commendable that the Federal Government recently announced a N10 billion fund towards domestic vaccine production to fight COVID-19, more concrete steps must be taken to make this a reality. Qualified pharmaceutical companies must be engaged and supported to deliver quality vaccines to the country, as urgently as possible.
The management of the National Agency for Food and Drugs, Administration and Control (NAFDAC) also owes Nigerians the obligation to explain what has become of Biovaccines Nigeria Limited – a vaccine production partnership between the Federal Government and May & Baker, inaugurated in 2017. Initially, the company fixed 2019 as the year of vaccine delivery. This was later shifted to 2021 due to infrastructural deficiency, but alas, nothing has been said of the multi-billion naira project since the pandemic began!
We must also emphasise that while it is expedient for the WHO and other relevant national and international agencies to step up efforts towards vaccines availability and administration, the Nigerian government must be particularly concerned about achieving the 2022 target of achieving herd immunity by exploring other vaccines approved by NAFDAC, aside from the celebrated AstraZeneca.