By Caleb Okereke
Lagos, Nigeria – Nigeria expects its first 100,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in February, according to Dr. Faisal Shuaib, head of the country’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency.
Yet one of the last times Pfizer embarked on a mass administration of its drugs in Nigeria, it killed 11 children with an experimental treatment administered without parental consent. That experience is one reason for the skepticism some Nigerians have of the coronavirus vaccines the country is looking to procure.
Paul Adebayo last took a vaccine as a child more than a decade ago. Now, the twenty-four-year-old teacher living in Lagos, Nigeria says he will not take a coronavirus vaccine when the country receives one.
“I feel these [vaccines] have not been proven yet,” he said. “The efficiency has not been proven.”
Nigeria has officially reported over 122,000 Covid-19 cases and recorded 1,507 deaths, though these figures are believed to be much higher as testing is not as widespread.
A variant strain of the virus was recently discovered and in Lagos, and both overall cases and the death rate have shot up.
“God has been keeping us, there’s no how he’d abandon us at the 11th hour,” Adebayo said in response to the possibility of contracting the virus if he doesn’t take the vaccine.
Adebayo is not the only one reluctant to get vaccinated. Seyi*, a popular filmmaker in Lagos, Nigeria shares Adebayo’s sentiments and believes the vaccines are a profit making venture that haven’t been properly tested.
“How many people has it been tested on to know if it works?” Seyi said. “There’s just a vibe around it. It looks like it’s a profit making venture and everyone is trying to make money in the end,” she explained.
Broadcast messages asking people not to take the vaccine have flooded the internet in recent weeks, as have messages implying the vaccine is a tool of the anti-Christ, and that Bill and Melinda gates are in fact the antichrist.
Nigeria’s vaccine hesitancy and the disinformation around it has its roots in the recent past. In 1996, Kano, a state in northern Nigeria experienced a meningitis outbreak, at the time Africa’s worst.
Without proper consent from parents, Pfizer (one of the companies with a coronavirus vaccine) administered an experimental drug “Trovan” to 100 children, while another 100 children received “ceftriaxone.”
Five children died from Trovan and six from Ceftriaxone. Many others were left with brain damage, slurred speech, or paralysis.
In 2003, leaders in northern Nigeria admonished parents to not allow their children be immunized against polio because the vaccine could be contaminated with anti-fertility and cancerous agents. This counsel is similar to the framing that has years later shrouded the coronavirus vaccine in Nigeria.
“I think people’s reluctance is based on [the fact] that the vaccine was developed too quickly and might be unsafe,” Ihekweazu says adding that there is equally a lot of distrust for the government in Nigeria.
“There needs to be systematic communication with Nigerians, at the grassroot [and] at the community level, using trusted spokespeople to communicate the safety of the vaccine,” she says.
Besides trust, there is a more immediate problem for Nigeria: actually getting a hold of coronavirus vaccine doses.
The 100,000 Pfizer doses were originally scheduled to arrive in January, but are now expected in February. Dr. Shuaib said in an interview with Bloomberg that the vaccines will be acquired through COVAX, an initiative working to acquire equitable distribution and backed by the World Health Organisation and other private partners.
This first consignment, Dr. Shuaib says, is meant to serve Nigeria’s health workers at the frontline and senior political officers.
In January, Nigeria’s health minister also announced that the country will receive 10 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine in March, even though it was not specified which vaccine is expected and who will be financing it.
Vivianne Ihekweazu who is the Director of Nigeria Health Watch, an organization looking to influence health policy in Nigeria through adovocacy and communication, says that the country’s response to the vaccines like most countries had to be reactionary, both in the selection and deploying of vaccines.
“Historically, whenever there’s been an outbreak, it’s taken over 10 years to develop a vaccine,” she says. “What the government in Nigeria like many other governments is having to do is look to see the distribution networks that they’re going to use to deploy the vaccine.”
Nigeria plans to vaccinate as much as 40% of its 200 million population against the coronavirus in 2021, but Ihekweazu thinks that even the 20% goal set by COVAX might not be realistic.
“20% in Nigeria is 40 million people so think about it logistically, how long would it take to immunize 40 million people?” she explained.
“The road network in Nigeria is not the best. Our health facilities are very fragmented,” she said, noting that spreading the vaccine over two doses adds additional complications. “The second dose then is an additional logistical exercise.”
Storage is also a problem. The Pfizer vaccine which the country is expecting first has strict storage directions and must be kept at a temperature of -70 degrees.
Moderna and AstraZeneca offer the option of slightly warmer temperatures, the former has to be stored at about -20 degrees and the latter between -2 and -8 degrees.
While Dr. Shuaib said Nigeria has acquired three ultra-cold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine expected next month, he added that the government plans on getting coronavirus vaccines that are easier to store in the long run.
Electricity to power these freezers remains a concern as well. Nigeria has an installed power generating strength of 12,522.0 MW, but only 1,864 MW is distributed to Nigerians and over 95 million live without electricity.
It remains to be seen how Nigeria will navigate its coronavirus vaccine hindrances, but one thing is certain for Seyi and it is that she won’t be taking it.
“I think science needs to start treating everyone’s body individually a bit more, than this generic thing they do and group all of us together. All of us can’t be the same,” she said.
*Seyi’s name has been changed to protect her identity.