- Charges NIMR to take up the challenge
Chairman, House Committee on COVID-19, Dr. Haruna Mshelia, has described Nigeria’s inability to produce a vaccine for Lassa virus as national embarrassment.
He said a country with over 200 million population has no excuse for not producing a cure since Lassa fever outbreak was first recorded in the country 51 years ago.
Lassa fever, an acute viral hemorrhagic illness, can be traced back to 1969 in the town of Lassa, in Borno State, Nigeria.
It is transmitted to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodents’ urine or faeces.
The disease is known to be endemic in Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and some Sub-Saharan African countries.
Speaking with PUNCH HealthWise during a recent facility tour of Nigerian Institute of Medical Research in Yaba, Lagos, Mshelia, a lawmaker representing Askira-Uba/Hawul Federal Constituency in Borno State challenged the management to develop a potent vaccine against the virus.
“It is a big embarrassment that after 51 years, a country as huge as Nigeria with over 200 million population could not produce a vaccine for Lassa.
“NIMR should see this as a challenge as the House Committee is ready to support it all the way.
“We have seen what Pfizer and others have done with COVID-19 vaccines and we also believe NIMR should be looking to develop one for Sub-Saharan African region.
“It is only when the institute comes up with good proposal that well-meaning people and organisations like Dangote can sponsor,” he said.
According to him, the House of Representatives would be willing to push for funding, provided NIMR is ready to come up with Lassa vaccine that can be supplied across Sub-Saharan Africa.
The lawmaker said Lassa fever had become an embarrassment to the country, adding that if Nigeria eventually gets a vaccine for the haemorrhagic fever, money expended on producing and supplying it to other Sub-Saharan regions would be recouped.
“We think a very big institute like NIMR should be at the forefront of seeking a solution to Lassa fever,” he said.
Mshelia said some scientific equipment had already been procured through COVID-19 intervention fund to upgrade some of NIMR labs to aid its research activities.
Also speaking, Deputy Chairman of the committee, Sam Onuigbo, urged the research institute to recruit more quality manpower to assist in its research oversight.
“It is a shame Nigeria has been unable to develop Lassa vaccine. But I know we have the potential to produce the sort of COVID-19 vaccine that Pfizer is celebrated for today.
“This country should not be seen as lagging behind in terms of scientific innovation,” he said.
Reacting to the lawmakers’ request, NIMR Director-General, Prof. Babatunde Salako, blamed the non-availability of both Lassa and COVID-19 vaccines on poor funding culture of research institutes across the country.
“We cannot solve a problem that is ours looking for donor fund. That’s basically what Nigeria is doing.
“There should be a dedicated fund somewhere. If we have such a fund, I can tell you that within the next few years, we will come up with something.
“Countries are rushing to come up with COVID-19 vaccines because it is a global problem. But Lassa is not. That’s why the world is not worried about it.
“The way vaccine production works is well known to us. It is not rocket science. We need some key instruments and equipment to achieve it and they don’t come cheap.
“The staff, manpower and expertise are there. We just need a dedicated fund to equip and speed up the process,” he said.
The professor of medicine and nephrology expressed worry about the prevalence of Lassa fever in the country, stressing that NIMR is presently looking at other vectors that could possibly be fuelling it other than rats.
The World Health Organisation says about 80 percent of people infected with Lassa virus have no symptoms, adding that one in five infections result in severe disease where the virus affects several organs such as the liver, spleen, and kidneys.
The host is a rodent of the genus Mastomys, commonly known as the “multimammate rat.” Mastomys rats infected with Lassa virus do not become ill, but they can shed the virus in their urine and faeces.
The mastomy rats are dangerous for two reasons. First, it is probably the most common mouse in equatorial Africa, especially in human households, and eaten as a delicacy in some places.
Secondly, once the mouse has become a carrier, it will excrete the virus throughout the rest of its lifetime through faeces and urine creating ample opportunities for transmission to humans.
The gestation period is in the dry season, stretching from May to June. They breed year-round. This fact is synonymous with Lassa fever’s reoccurrence year after year.
To date, no vaccine has been produced and while clinical trials point out Ribavirin as an effective cure if given early, no evidence shows if it works.
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