Why Nigeria Lags Behind in Drug Development – Prof. Ibezim

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The Nigeria Association of Pharmacists in Academia (NAPA) has bemoaned what it described as Nigerian government’s lackadaisical attitude towards scientific research and development (R&D), saying the nation cannot advance, especially in drug development, unless this attitude changes.

Speaking with Pharmanews recently, the National Chairman of the association, Prof. Emmanuel C. Ibezim (FPSN) lamented that most Nigerian universities lack good laboratories to conduct meaningful research works.

Ibezim revealed that drug research and development is cost-intensive and requires standard facilities, stressing that, as a nation, Nigeria must be sincerely committed to research, if it must advance in drug production.

Professoe Emmanuel C. Ibezim

The NAPA chairman disclosed that most of the published works that academic pharmacists in Nigeria embarked on were carried out in foreign laboratories, noting that the nation cannot achieve meaningful development under such circumstances.

He added that Nigerian pharmacists in academia are not inferior to their counterparts in advanced countries, saying what is incapacitating them includes poor incentives and ill-equipped facilities.

In his words: “Nigerian academic Pharmacists are not inferior and can never be subservient to their counterparts in other countries. We have what it takes to do what they are doing out there, and even more, but what we lack are facilities and proper incentives. It is shameful that most of the publishable works we undertake as academic pharmacists are carried out in foreign laboratories, when we travel for short visits or when we are able to get someone travelling out.

“Our local laboratories are so ill-equipped to handle any meaningful research activity. How many universities in Nigeria can boast of standard research equipment like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine, standard HPLC set up, X – ray diffractometer, Differential Scanning Calorimeter, GS-MS spectrometers, Mass Spectrophotometer, or Goniometer? Take time to visit any of our university laboratories and you would be ashamed at the archaic, out-modelled, malfunctioning items of equipment that litter the place, without any plans of repair or replacement.

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“A point came, when some of us went, cap in hands, unsuccessfully begging some of these foreign universities to ship to us their used but still functional research equipment which they had abandoned as scraps, having long replaced them with newer models. Yet, these pieces of equipment are paramount in any serious drug development research.”

Ibezim added: “Let me once again stress that Nigerian academic pharmacists have the leads to new drugs development, but need proper motivation to deliver. Each year, TETFund will call for proposals from Nigerian researchers, who will always bombard them with myriads of submissions; but regrettably, they end up selecting just a miserly few, not because the rest are inferior, but because of “limited funds”, as they claim.

“Do our leaders ever take trips outside and ask those nations that seem to be delivering, what their magic is? As a nation, we cannot advance much in technological breakthroughs, including drug development, when we treat research, our researchers and research facilities with levity, neglect and abandonment.”

Reacting to the reality of Nigerian pharmacists’ inability to come up with a vaccine against COVID-19, the NAPA chairman explained that some pharmacists in the academia have presented findings that can give the nation a breakthrough on the pandemic, if given the needed attention. He however queried what happened to some of the proposals submitted to government agencies by researchers.

He stated: “It may not be exactly correct for anybody to say that pharmacists in academia have not come up with any remedy for COVID-19. Quite a number of us have come up with findings and leads that, if properly attended to and funded, would give us a breakthrough. NAFDAC called for researchers with such findings to come up with them, and I am aware that some of our members responded.

“The Central Bank of Nigeria equally made a similar call, late last year, and many, including myself, submitted proposals.  As you may be aware, the process of development of a single new drug takes an average of ten years – with clinical trials taking six to seven years – and an average cost of $2.6 billion. This is not something any single lecturer can accomplish, left alone, or within such a short time.

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Ibezim further queried: “Come to think of it – has anybody, world over, really developed any new drug against COVID-19? We are all falling back to already existing drugs – hydroxychloroquine, zinc, vitamin C, ivermectin, remdesivir, azithromycin and the likes. New drugs are not developed that easily. Similarly, vaccine production is a cost-intensive and facility-tasking venture that cannot obviously be carried out in our currently underdeveloped and dilapidated university laboratories. Check out the three WHO-approved vaccines. They were produced by highly established pharmaceutical firms – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

“The harsh treatment being meted to academics by the powers that be cannot also be ruled out as responsible for any seeming apathy on the part of pharmacists in academia. These, notwithstanding, few of us still made efforts and are still making, without adequate encouragement. But what had happened to the proposals submitted by our colleagues to both NAFDAC and CBN?”

The NAPA leader however expressed optimism that Nigeria will still discover a local remedy against the pandemic, irrespective of prevailing challenges.

He noted that works are already in progress and many researchers are working hard, to come up with something meaningful.

According to the professor, the Pharmaceutical Centre of Excellence at the University of Jos recently came up with a COVID management remedy that should scale through some teething administrative bottlenecks and resurface in the Nigerian market.

He said: “Few months ago, NAPA, collaborating with the Nigeria Association of Industrial Pharmacists (NAIP), called for proposals from colleagues working on COVID-19 remedies, and we got a handful of submissions but currently waiting for funding, in order to forge ahead. We had earlier come up with a cough syrup (NANIP Cough Syrup) and a topical formulation that will soon hit the Nigerian drug market, having gone far in their production and commercialisation bids.

“I am certain, that given the necessary support, there will be light at the end of the tunnel in the area of COVID-19 remedy. However, we must bear in mind that, by its special nature, new drug development is not a ‘hit and run’ or ‘fire brigade affair. It takes time.”

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The NAPA chairman called government at all levels to be more serious with their attention and commitment to drug research by ensuring that adequate funding is made available at every point in time.

He said: “We are beating our chests now for spending billions of naira to import vaccines, from a more focused and purposeful nation. How much have we invested in vaccine research in Nigeria? Was it not after several arguments, pressure and insistencies by researchers, mainly NAPA and her members, that the CBN finally, but reluctantly, offered to include grants for research, among their outlined COVID interventions?

“Yet, several months after the submission of proposals, no one has heard anything again. We can’t go anywhere under these circumstances. The government and well established pharmaceutical firms have a major role to play in financing new drug development in Nigeria and should rise up to this responsibility.”

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