Why Research is Vital for Breakthrough in Drug Development – Prof. Wannang

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– Says Plateau State has developed COVID-19 drugs for trials

Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Secretary General of the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists (WAPCP), Noel Nen’man Wannang,  has called on government at all levels to take the issue of research funding more seriously so that health emergencies like COVID-19 would not overwhelm Nigerians.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Pharmanews, the University of Jos lecturer and researcher, who also chairs the Plateau State Committee on COVID-19 and other Infectious Diseases, bemoaned the absence of research in the programme of all state governments in the country.

The renowned scholar and firm believer in the prophylactic and therapeutic potentials of herbal medicine also gave hints of a promising outcome for the efforts his committee has put into the search for possible therapeutic clues for the dreaded coronavirus.

Prof. Noel Wannang

Below is the full interview:

As chairman of the Committee on COVID-19 and Other Infectious Diseases, how have you deployed your experience as a pharmacist in helping to drive the activities of this committee?

First and foremost, I was delighted when I got the offer to lead the research team on the Plateau. Naturally, by training as a pharmacist and researcher, drug discovery and drug development are not new terrains to me. That is basically my call.

I have been in teaching and research for close to three decades. I am a professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and I have a strong bias for herbal medicine. The committee has an array of other professionals – veterinary experts, molecular biologists, biochemists, physicians, microbiologists, lab scientists, and so forth. It is truly balanced.

Working with these professionals has made the work easy, as nobody is an embodiment of all knowledge. As we interact daily, I gain from the others. That is how to grow. My years of experience, in the field of pharmacy practice and research, have equipped me with the requisite knowledge, competence and skills in the area of drug discovery and development; and these were brought to bear in this effort.

 

Would you say your committee is getting the necessary support from the state government?

That the government of Plateau State thought of forming a committee on research is a testimony of its commitment to solving problems. Research is everything. Without research, nothing moves.

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It is unfortunate that the system has so neglected research that Nigeria is now a consumer nation. All we do is to wait for other countries to produce for us. We produce nothing; and unfortunately the country has endless brains. The manpower is simply amazing. So far, the state government is amazingly very supportive.

I, on behalf of the committee, have interacted with the officials of the state at various levels, and at each contact, you will see the eagerness for the committee to achieve success.

 

What, in your assessment, is the level of research and development in herbal medicine practice in Plateau State?

Currently, there is no research in the programme of all governments in all states in Nigeria. Plateau state is not different. That is why I often say that COVID-19 is a blessing in disguise. It has opened our eyes.

Now, attention is pulled inwards. The health care system in Nigeria was in a colossal mess. Now, we all have to sit up and look for ways and means to strengthen the system. The first hitch is that there was no budgetary allocation for research at all, when we were inaugurated. The government had to quickly use wisdom to set us rolling in activities. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but the team was very determined to solve a major problem facing the globe. We were confident we can make great contributions

 

Are there hopes that with Plateau State’s endowment with wonderful flora and fauna, a cure for COVID-19 may eventually come from the state?

The weather on the Plateau is excellent. The vegetation is just awesome. As researchers, we are willing to exploit all avenues to see to it that great things come out of our efforts. The state is blessed with wonderful flora and fauna that cannot be seen in most parts of the world. All the plants we have assessed are from the Plateau. The percentage yield is encouraging.

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What can you say your committee has achieved so far?

The committee has achieved greatly. We started with many plants study and so far, we have identified 13 plants with excellent antiviral properties. Then, we did further analysis and rejected three due to binding and other pharmacokinetic variables. Now, we have a cocktail of 10 plants that, through combinatorial analysis, we have produced three regimens for the treatment of SARS-CoV 2.

We have dossiers of preclinical/laboratory results and armed with this, the human trial is ready to kickstart. The three drugs are coded Cov-Pla 1, Cov-Pla 2 and Cov-Pla 3. The committee has also formulated a tea preparation that can boost the immune system and thus, we are positioning it for prophylactics. The tea preparation is called Plaboost. We intend to submit our papers/documents/findings to NAFDAC for necessary actions.

 

As secretary general of the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists (WAPCP), give us a hint of the pharmacy-related activities going on as part of the fight against COVID-19?

As secretary general of the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists, my jurisdiction encompasses The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. And all these individual countries are actively involved in the fight against this pandemic.

Universities in Nigeria and Ghana, I know, have initiated pockets of research teams. Several groups within the WAPCP are involved in one way or the other. Fellows of the college from Public Health Pharmacy are doing great in advocacy and sensitisation to communities. Drug Production and Quality Assurance were involved in massive production of hand sanitisers and other drugs that are re-purposed for the treatment of COVID-19. Those in Clinical Pharmacy are routinely involved at the hospitals, offering the necessary pharmaceutical care to the patients.

I must commend the community pharmacy fellows. They are deeply involved in patient management and have stocked drugs for easy access by patients. This period has really helped us in achieving a lot of collaborative needs. The Social and Administrative Pharmacy Fellows are looking at policies that can best position pharmacy practice to global best practices

 

How do you think the Federal Government can best handle the socio-economic quagmire occasioned by the pandemic?

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This period has truncated activities worldwide. No movements. Flights were halted. Businesses were inverted. This has serious socio-economic consequences.

The FG should be more proactive. We had Ebola virus sometimes back, but I don’t think we learnt lessons from it. If we are a serious nation, we should have put in place strategies that can be quickly stimulated in terms of emergencies. COVID-19 exposed our weaknesses. Research activities, from the social sciences to the sciences and health, should be functional; not just by placing sign boards. These research centres should be adequately funded.

I think it is all about priority. Any country that doesn’t put research as a priority suffers what we are passing through today. I am not a prophet of doom, but I will not be surprised that if another pandemic comes up, we could still be found wanting – may God forbid. We need the political will.

 

How would you rate the response of the Plateau State Government to the pandemic?

I sincerely appreciate the government of Plateau State. It is the first state to put up a research committee to address this pandemic. By God’s grace too, when our research findings are concluded, the state will be a pacesetter, too.

So far, we are seeing every possibility of achieving the desired results. But, as scientists, we will not make pronouncements till we are done. When we are done, we shall make them published and will be ready to be invited to any part of the science world for defence and any academic fireworks

 

Any hope of a local cure?

Sure. We are pretty sure we shall soon shout eureka!!! It is unfortunate that you even called it “local” cure. We are fond of berating our own! Very unfortunate.

The rich flora and fauna of Africa is coming to our aid. We have gifted researchers and academics. Our pharmacists are underutilised and neglected. I am not an extreme optimist neither am I a natural pessimist, but all l can say is that I can see the ray of hope. So help me God!

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