Biotechnology Explosion: Expert Warns Overreliance on Foreign Vaccines May Spell Doom for Africa, Says Africa’s Research Prowess Underreported

Prof. Christian Happi is a Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics. He is the Director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) situated at the Redeemer's University in Ede, Osun State, Southwest Nigeria.

The primary thematic discipline of this Centre is Malaria, Lassa, and Ebola. The outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has really brought this World Bank-funded collaborative research Centre to global limelight due to its commendable research findings which have helped in coordinating the curtailment of the deadly virus in Nigeria and indeed Africa.

Timescape Magazine's Nigeria Bureau Chief, Taiwo Samson Adelu was a guest of Prof. Christian Happi where he discussed pertinent issue surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, how it affects Nigeria, Africa as a continent and indeed the global community.

In this very engaging exchange, Taiwo Samson first wanted to know how Prof. Happi could describe the deadly UK Covid-19 variant to the layman, explaining why the mere thought of it should be scary?

Fighting the spread of Covid-19 is Africa is rudimentary but seemingly working (C) BBC

The UK variant of Covid-19 is just another variant circulating and we know in Nigeria that there are 55 variants in circulation now, then the UK variant is one of those variants of concerns. We called it a variant of concern because this is a variant that could be associated with high transmission, high mortality, or high morbidity, so the UK variant has been so associated with increased transmissibility, increase morbidity, and now increase mortality. I can tell you that this variant has continued to gain ground in Nigeria now. As of today, we have it in six different states in Nigeria. This Centre is the only one in the country that can do this kind of analysis. We have identified it in Abuja, Lagos, Kwara, Osun, Oyo, and Edo states. We have also been able to identify that this variant is being transmitted through community transmission.

We also know with authority that this variant invades the human cells much faster than any other identified variants. They do it 70 per cent more than the normal variants. This means that the number of body cells that are infected is much higher and this implies that your organs will be more affected. It will cause people to be sicker and there will be more deaths especially among people with underlying ailments. That is the reason evidence is pointing to the fact that we are having a surge in Nigeria in this second wave.

Recently, I was talking to some medical personnel, I mean patient managers, who were telling me that they were having more severe cases, people are dying the more. I think the earlier we take this issue very seriously the better.


It is surprising that many Nigerians do not know that we have such several Covid-19 variants circulating in the country?

I don't think people should be surprised that Nigeria is having about 55 variants of Covid-19 currently circulating around. We have given the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) this information long ago and the NCDC's boss is aware of this. Let me tell you that there are over a thousand Covid-19 variants circulating all over the world out of which Nigeria has 55. It is likely that as time goes on, we may be seeing more of these variants in circulation.


Are all these variants deadly?

Not every valiant is deadly. As I mentioned earlier, there are thousands of variants circulating, but what draws the attention of people is when we have a variant of concern. These variants of concern are those associated with increased transmissibility, increased severe diseases and deaths. So, the UK variant, or the South African variant and of course the Brazilian variant are variants of concern because they have those characteristics I just mentioned.


Can we then say that people get infected with these variants because they come into contact with people from the UK, South Africa, or Brazil?

No, it doesn't necessarily mean that you must get in contact with people from these areas before you can get infected. For example, there are reports from Florida in America recently where we found individuals who have never travelled out of the State or out of the country and they have not gotten into contact with anybody who travelled, but surprisingly, they have the UK variant we are talking about. In fact, in Osun State, those we found with the UK variant are people who have no travelling history out of the State, and they have no relations or relationship with people outside Nigeria. Now, the question is how did they get the UK variant? So, it is possible that spontaneous mutations that just arise are similar to the one in the UK. What this means is that if it happens in the UK, it can also happen in Nigeria and anywhere else in the world.


If that is the case, why can't we name our own ‘The Nigerian variant’ instead of calling it UK variant?

Why do you want to name it Nigerian variant? In fact, we don't call it the UK variant, we call it B 1.1.7 variant that first emerged in the UK. The one generally referred to as the South African variant is B.1.351 variant that first emerged in South Africa, so also is that of Brazil's which is B.1.1.248. So, tagging names is a bit derogatory and that is not right. We should not be giving it geographic names.

By all means, the Black Continent is keeping up to the challenge (C) AS English

How has this Centre been able to impact the control, management, and elimination of infectious diseases in Nigeria in particular, and Africa in general?

This Centre has been designated by the World Health Organization (WHO), Africa Centre for Disease Control as Centre of Excellence, one of the two Centres of Excellence for Genomic and Infectious Diseases in Africa. It is one of the few reference centres by the WHO in the world. This is a global centre. 

The Centre has done a lot, not only for Nigeria, West Africa, Africa but indeed the world. It started as far back as 2014 when we had an Ebola outbreak in Africa. We did incredible work in West Africa by diagnosing the first case of Ebola in Sierra Leone, and within four months of that outbreak in West Africa, we developed our own rapid diagnosis test for Ebola. That was the first rapid diagnostic test approved by the WHO. The introduction of that test became critical to the fight against Ebola. After that, we went on to study Lassa fever in detail and how Lassa fever evolved, and thanks to this information, within two years, a vaccine was produced. We were able to produce genetic make-up of this virus which nobody knows much about.

In 2018, we were able to use the information we generated to respond positively to the surge of Lassa fever in West Africa. In 2019, we were also able to use the technology we developed to uncover the outbreak of yellow fever. We promptly informed NCDC about this, and within two weeks, they were able to control it, saving thousands of lives. In 2017, we were able to use the approach we have here for the NCDC to respond to the monkeypox outbreak which was coming 40 years after the disease had disappeared from the scene in Nigeria.

In 2020, we were able, not only to reconfirm the first case of the Novel Coronavirus in Nigeria, but we were also the first to make the genomic sequence of Covid-19 in Africa. That provided critical information needed for developing diagnosis, therapy and developing vaccines. We went further within two months of the Covid-19 outbreak to develop Point of Care Rapid Diagnosis Test. This was approved by the WHO. This test was a breakthrough and gamechanger which has been in used in the US today.

I want to remind you that Nigeria was able to contain the spread of the Ebola disease thanks to the wonderful job being done at this Centre. We were able to diagnose the Ebola virus before the government and worked with the government to contain it. Other African countries didn't have that kind of luxury, they don't have a kind of Centre like ours. In their own cases, they must send their samples abroad, wait for like a month or more before the results come, during which time the transmission of the disease might be spreading rapidly.

At this Centre, we are paving the way. We produced the genomic sequence on the virus that caused Covid-19 within 48 hours, and nobody in the world has been able to match that record. This is what is needed to contain an outbreak; the ability to utilise speed and accuracy. That is why we are one of the leaders in the world in this field.


African Researchers gathered so much experience in the battle against Ebola (C) The Guardian

A look at your brochure leaves to understand that one of the objectives of this Centre is community engagement. How is the Centre working with the communities to check the spread of the Coronavirus?

The meaning of community is relative to us. So, when you talk about community, to us at this Centre, it means many things. We are not only for Osun state, but we are also working for about six other states in Nigeria and engaging with some other countries in Africa. Just recently, we finished sequencing viruses for Cameroon, Somalia, Burkina Faso, and others. In April every year, we usually go out for our community engagements with a series of activities such as health education, health talks and other things to identify with people around us. In our community drives, we have a kind of cross-relationship with the Osun State government where we are a member of the EOC, we are also a member of the EOC at the national level in Nigeria. We are a member of the Africa Taskforce on Covid-19. We are involved in all these to contribute our own quota to uplift the society so that what we are doing will have impacted positively on the people, the nation and of course the African continent.

For example, we are passing vital information about the pandemic to the NCDC in Nigeria, which in turn passes it on to the Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19. The taskforce in turn passes on this information to Nigerians during their daily briefings to the nation.


Statistics have shown that in some African countries, the rate of Covid-19 infections and deaths are extremely low, contrary to the projections of WHO in the early days of the global outbreak of the pandemic. What will you say is responsible for this?

It is a combination of many things. Take for example you will see that the percentage of the youthful age in Africa is extremely high and when you talk about metabolic diseases, the rate is also exceptionally low in Africa. The disease prognosis is not as bad as the one being experienced in the US and other countries. More importantly, it is also possible with the nature of the African society, you know in America, they have special homes for the older generation which they call 'senior homes', we don't have these kinds of homes in Africa. We don't have that kind of societal structures; we live with our own parents and we always take the necessary measures to protect them. I think this may be the reason this pandemic has not been so deadly in  African society. Don't forget also that the larger percentage of Africans live in the remote areas and by nature of the way the villages are structured in Africa, they already maintain one form of social distancing or the other, which means that the transmission of this disease will be very low in the community.

In addition to that, we still need to recognise one strong fact that the health system in Africa, despite being seen to be poor, has this resilience. I said resilience because at any point you will see an African country managing two or more epidemics at the same time. This has given the health systems, despite the poverty, the resilience to address and manage diseases like the Novel Coronavirus. This is because a system that has been used over the years to address a series of epidemics would have developed some mechanisms, despite little resources at its disposal, to curtain outbreaks like Covid-19.

The system has garnered experience over the years to handle past epidemics, and experience is not just what you get overnight or something you buy with money. So, Europe and America should give credit to us in Africa that we can handle this Covid-19 issue in our own way. When you look at doctors in Africa, they treat 200 patients every day and 70 per cent of these patients are coming with one form of fever or the other. So over time, the doctors have developed what we call a Clinical Index of the patients, the doctors can look at the patients with the symptoms and go ahead to categorise different kinds of diseases accurately even without many tests. I think the West is just shying away from reality and don't want to give credit to Africa that not all things from Africa are bad. We have seen some of the weaknesses of the West, especially during this pandemic. We have seen their shortcomings when we talk about clinical management. I must say that Africa did a lot in 2014 and 2015 during the outbreak of the Ebola pandemic.

It was in line with our management of the Ebola crisis that African leaders in their wisdom created the Africa Centre for Disease Control, which is a body that coordinates the response to infectious diseases, and you can see the way Africa responded in the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic. You can see that African countries shut down at the same time because they have a body that is guiding them. People were surprised to see that happen. This was the result of a combination of all these factors and it is time we consider giving credit to Africa and to tell the West that Africa is better when it comes to certain things.


A school of thought holds that the outbreak of Covid-19 and the urgent need to find homegrown solutions turned out to be a blessing to African scientists, who have seen this as a golden opportunity to showcase their know-how. What is your take on this?

We have seen a lot of innovations on the African continent since the outbreak of the pandemic. Within a few days of the outbreak in Nigeria, myself and my team were able to develop In-self Screen App that enables people to sit down in their homes, look at their symptoms and their risk of getting Covid-19 and be referred to the nearest testing facilities. It has also seen us developing rapid diagnostic tests two months into the outbreak. We have been able to develop a vaccine candidate based on the sequences we see here. All these show clearly what Africa can do but unfortunately, Africa doesn't believe in itself. That is why you see African policymakers decide to go and buy products from outside instead of patronising the locally made ones.

If there is anything this Covid-19 has shown us, it is that Africa is over-reliant on the outside. This was the reason we got into trouble in the initial stage of the outbreak when there was no test available and the West was so busy with its own problem. It is high time Africans learned that we need to develop our own technology, we need to empower our own scientists so that when there are issues, we can use our homegrown solutions to address the problem.


What do you say about our constant recriminations that vaccines from the West target Africans with harm, yet we still depend on that same West for vaccines when we should normally develop ours?

That is the irony of the situation, and I can only hope that Africa will easily get the vaccines because the way things are going, I don't see us getting the vaccines until towards the end of this year. This is because the countries that can even pity us are having bigger problems on their hands, which means they must clear their backyards first before thinking of helping us. Countries invest trillions of dollars to generate vaccines, so they will first cater to their own populations before thinking of people from the outside. We have seen this playing out in Europe. Now we are talking about Vaccines Nationalism. Of course, Vaccines Nationalism reflects investment when people have put a lot in developing these vaccines and you expect them to give it out when they have their own people to take care of first. I won't have feelings for Africa if we are crying that we don't have vaccines. The question is what do you do to have these vaccines when we have these resources, and we don't invest in the production of these vaccines? Is it not high time we should come together as a continent to develop vaccines that will take care of our own reality of the pandemic? Today we are hearing that even the vaccines they developed may not work in Africa because there is this South African variant which has defied their vaccines. That is why we have been shouting that we should develop the vaccines based on the lineages of the viruses circulating in Nigeria and Africa.


Prof. Christian Happi believes Africa has enough potential to produce its own vaccines

Don't you foresee danger ahead of time if we must depend on the Western nations for vaccines when they too are having a bigger problem on their hands?

I think Africa must take up the responsibility. How do you expect other people to help you clear your backyard when they too have a bigger problem facing them? I think Europe and America should not be blamed if we face the worst-case scenario as things are going now. I am worried that when the pandemic is curtailed over there, we will get into bigger trouble in Africa and nobody will be there to look after us. It is time for Africa to look inward to solve its own peculiar problems.


What are the other activities this Centre carries out in medical and scientific research?

We do generally what we call cutting edge research in the field of infectious diseases, now we are getting into non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and others. We just recently got a set of equipment that will be used in this direction because it is the same technology that we will be applying to solve these problems. We are also doing a lot in education. We are training people up to PhD level and do some specialised courses and skills. I am enormously proud to say that most people who are coming to this Centre from different parts of Africa have good reports to tell the world. We are very much proud of this. We are into the business of research, the business of education and of course supporting other countries to solve their health issues.


What are the challenges you are facing in meeting your objectives?

Or course, funding is the real challenge and lack of support from the State Government and local governments. We don't receive the expected support from the Federal Government as well. You can imagine what this support could have done for us at the Centre.


Are you saying that at this critical period, the authorities still deny this Centre the needed funding to carry out research?

I can't say what is in their minds and I don't know why they are not providing all the necessary support.


What do you consider to be the future of biotechnological research in Africa?

Not just in research, biotechnology is the future of medicine and in anything, maybe in agriculture. I think everything revolves around biotechnology and it is called genetic engineering. You can see in Covid-19, how the world could accelerate the production of vaccines within a year using the genetic engineering platform and biotechnology. We are coming to an era where we can use genetic makeup to treat you and to do a lot of things within a short period of time.