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Contrary to growing negative rhetorics about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, experts say there is nothing to fear whenever vaccines are available in the country.

AGAINST the backdrop of rising anti-vaccine narratives all over the place, experts have reassured the public of the safety of COVID-19 vaccines when they are made available in the country. Nigerians should disregard the anti-COVID-19 tales because they are outright lies and conspiracy theories, the professionals have said.

Prof. Oyewale Tomori, an internationally acclaimed virologist and chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Response, described negative narratives on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines as lies that should not be permitted to gain traction.

Speaking to The Nation, he said he was miffed that such lies and fake news were being allowed to spread and confuse the public without much being done to counter falsehoods with facts.

“If a carpenter offers to repair your car, will you? So, my advice is: after the World Health Organisation approval and NAFDAC has endorsed the use of a vaccine, we have nothing to worry about. I will take the vaccine and ensure that members of my family do the same. I will also encourage my friends to take it. I will use persuasion based on facts and not fiction as many of the anti-vaccine people are doing. I am sure no government will make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory. All we need is to convince people with facts on the benefit of taking the vaccine.

“It is unfortunate that information based on fake data, outright lies or originating from diabolically fertile imagination. What is more unfortunate is that these lies and fake news are allowed to spread unchallenged with facts. If you check the qualification of many of the originators of the fake information, they include chiropractors, homeopathy specialists, journalists and social commentators who are obviously unqualified professionally, to talk about viruses, vaccines and immunology,” he said.

But, also speaking in the same vein, Sola Solarin, Managing Partner at Savante Consulting Limited and Vice President (Industrial Pharmacy Section), International Pharmaceutical Federation, said he was not surprised at all by what was happening.

According to him, peddling of fake news about vaccines is not new because some people have chosen it as a pastime to always associate vaccines with some ailments. While saying that he is ready to volunteer to take COVID-19 vaccine immediately it is available in the country, he assured Nigerians about the safety of vaccines, adding that there is no reason for anybody to worry.

Speaking with The Nation, the pharmacist cited four reasons to back his confidence in the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. One, he said each vaccine that has made it to approval level has passed through various levels of scrutiny among health professionals involved in drug manufacturing and certification.

Number two, going by the huge number of people that took the vaccines during the trial stages, it will force development of safe vaccines;while none of the vaccines being developed in leading countries of the world is tested within just one country. This, Solarin said, had made it imperative to cut corners as it is impossible not to exchange data because external parties would be involved in the various stages.

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Finally, because most facilities where COVID-19 vaccines are being manufactured have been supplying vaccines to WHO immunisation programmes globally have been prequalified, it gives a lot of comfort that their quality assurance system will deliver safe vaccines.

“Without any doubt, Nigerians should go ahead and take the vaccine anytime it is available. NAFDAC is a respected body globally in terms of quality oversight. Introducing a vaccine into the Nigerian market is not the end; NAFDAC has pharmaco vigilance that follows up with people that are using the vaccine to see if there are any problems. Politicians are asking questions. Journalists are asking questions. Mothers are asking questions. Even some scientists are creating doubts. Because of intense focus from everybody, they (vaccine manufacturers) will do everything to the letter to ensure that these vaccines are safe,” Solarin said.

Currently, two vaccines have been authorised for preventing COVID-19. They are Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Others in Phase 3 Clinical Trials are – AstraZeneca, Janssen, Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, in one of its briefings disclosed that Nigeria should be able to get the vaccines by the first quarter of this year, through the COVAX facility of WHO.

Also speaking during a television interview last week, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, the President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), said likened those peddling unfounded rumours about COVID-19 vaccines to the battles waged to children to take polio vaccines, meningitis vaccines and all kinds of vaccines all over the country, insisting it is usually a hot matter that comes with all kinds of interpretations and innuendos.

“With sustained effort with the National Primary HealthCare Development Agency’s (NPHCDA’s) team, the National Programme on Immunisation and partnerships from multilateral and bilateral agencies, we were able to overcome and today the optics of those vaccines have increased.

“I believe the same will happen here because of the same lack of belief and scepticism we have seen. But many of the enlightened people will take the vaccines because the vaccines have been proven to be effective globally, and Nigeria was part of the global trials I believe, mediated by WHO. So, when the vaccines become available, people who really care for their lives – the elderly, frontline and healthcare professionals, media persons who are always travelling from one place to another, etc., will take the vaccine because all these theories and conspiracies do not make meaning to me because they are just myths.

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“My thinking is let us go to the scientific process, admit the vaccines, and distribute them effectively. My only worry is: do we have the technology and facility to keep these vaccines in the cold temperatures they are supposed to say. That is our worry as pharmacists. This is because with the two to eight degrees we have to put the existing vaccines will use here, it is difficult to assure in the presence of no electricity all over the country and you have to depend on generators. The question will now be – how do we get vaccines to people especially in the villages that need them? They do not have constant electricity. Our challenge will be the infrastructure to store these vaccines.”

However, expressing worries over the country’s capacity and existing infrastructure to store the vaccines, especially with the very erratic electricity supply, medical experts urged governments at all levels to invest more in health infrastructure and make adequate provision for a cold chain system to store the vaccines.

Although Dr. Betta Edu, chairman of Commissioners for Health Forum and Commissioner for Health, Cross River State, agreed that it is good news that Nigeria will be getting vaccines into the country probably by the end of January, she raised fears about the state of preparedness of storage facilities for the vaccines, which require certain temperature levels during storage periods.

Speaking during a television programme on Monday, she urged authorities at all levels of government to do something about storage infrastructure pending the time vaccines arrive.

“But I really want to put up a very special appeal at this point in time based on the realities on ground. If we take for instance one of the vaccines that have been approved by WHO, that is, Pfizer BioNTech, it should be stored at minus 80 degrees centigrade to minus 60 degrees centigrade. Most states, local governments, and wards in Nigeria do not have the cold chain system that will be able to store vaccines at that level. We are still grappling with vaccines that should be stored at minus eight degrees centigrade to minus two degree centigrade. I think half of the money should actually be put into fixing the system to be able to collect or receive these vaccines in a potent form, and of course, maintain it through a proper cold chain system to the point where it is delivered in a potent form to the end user.

“If not, we will spend so much money bringing in a vaccine and at the end of the day we have a lot of wastage due to inability of the system to be able to manage these vaccines all the way down. We need to invest more in the cold chain system, logistics and supply chain movement. Each primary healthcare centre and secondary facility in every state should have their solar refrigerators.They should also be able to have their cold chain system and storage at local government levels. More money is needed to be put into primary healthcare.

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“A lot of work has to be done on risk communication, rumour management and all of it. At this point, we should be working with communities to see how they can understand the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine which we want to invest in.”

But Tomori said the issue concerning storage is more on the type and size of storage facilities in existence, especially on the type of vaccine that is eventually available in Nigeria through donation or purchase.

“Remember there are at least three types of vaccines based on the storage temperatures – minus 70 degree, minus 20 degree or plus two to plus eight degree Centigrade. We should for now forget the vaccine to be stored at the ultralow minus 70 degree facility and concentrate on vaccines we can store at either minus 20 freezer or the ordinary fridge,” he said.

The virologist further urged Nigerians to continue to adhere strictly to non-pharmaceutical protocols from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control(NCDC): properly wearing face mask, handwashing, using hand sanitisers, and maintaining social and physical distancing. He explained that even after getting the vaccines, people still need to practice the safety measures.

“The vaccine is not a magic wand that will solve all COVID-19 problems. It is an additional bullet in the armoury against COVID-19. We have to use all the ammunition we have against this COVID-19 virus – the nasty, invisible, evasive, invasive, and invincible enemy. Even after someone gets the vaccine, he or she must still wear the mask, wash the hand and maintain safe distancing and avoid large gatherings. Again for emphasis, differences in human make up means that we react to the vaccine differently. Some will develop strong immunity, others not so strong, a few weak immunity and even others, none at all,” he said.

A former president of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Prof. Oluwole Atoyebi, said the government needs to place more emphasis on improving the health system, stressing that Nigeria has a fragile health system that cannot withstand any pandemic.

“Also, I pray the government will make sure that the amount budgeted are released and are spent for the purposes they are meant for, because we have not provided enough funds in our budget for our health system to get better than what we have now. We also need the government to support the private sector just as is being done in India; that is why most people are going to India for medical tourism.”

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