Friday, January 8, 2021 12:20 pm
By Chris Anyokwu
Humankind on planet Earth is living in grave and mortal danger of contracting the novel coronavirus or the COVID-19. But mercifully, vaccines for its cure have been developed to varying degrees of efficacy. But it’s important from the outset to know what a vaccine really is, commonly bandied about as it is as well as the underlying politics of its development, distribution and so forth. What is a vaccine? What are the components of a vaccine? What are the vaccines known to humankind and how long does it take to develop one? According to Wikipedia, a vaccine is a biological preparation that provides active acquired immunity to a particular infectious disease. A vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe, its toxins, or one of its surface proteins. A vaccine normally is made up of a variety of ingredients including antigens, stabilizers, adjuvants, antibodies and preservatives.
It has been said that the potential vaccine components for COVID-19 are as follows: Envelop (E), membrane (M), structural proteins, etc. By the same token, therefore, the novel coronavirus is an enveloped, single-stranded positive-sense RNA virus, with much of the complexity on the surface as well as within the genome-Envelop (E), membrane (M), nucleocapsid (N), and spike (S) are the four structural proteins while its genome comprises 29, 891 nucleotides, which encode the 12 putative open reading frames responsible for the synthesis of viral structural and non-structural proteins. Furthermore, we are told that, because of the genomic variability of COVID-19, researchers have currently adopted a multi-pronged approach in developing effective vaccines for the virus. The novel coronavirus, according to Bill Gates, may be identified thus: “It’s the protein that spikes out of the virus, giving the coronavirus its crown-like shape as well as its name”. Itis crucial to therefore get a hang of the virus, its disease pathophysiology through genetic engineering, if humankind is to defeat it. Again,Wikipedia furnishes us with some of the vaccines developed in the past to cure some infections. For instance, in 1880, the first vaccine for cholera was developed by Louis Pasteur.
In 1885, Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux jointly developed the first vaccine for rabies. In 1890, Emil von Behring developed the first vaccine for tetanus (serum antitoxin), and in 1896, the first vaccine was developed for typhoid fever by Almroth Edward Wright, Richard Pfeiffer and Wilhelm Kolle. In this connection, therefore, for a vaccine to be successful, it has to be successfully developed and then tested through pre-clinical stages. Three stages of clinical trials with increasing sample sizes, and then registered and licensed. According to Peter Hurford working at Effective Altruism Forum, it takes an average of 29 years for the typical vaccine to be developed and applied. It will interest the reader to know that, prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world had experienced so many deadly viruses. The 12 deadliest ones are as follows: (1) Marburg virus (1967); it’s similar to Ebola, contracted from infected monkeys said to be in Uganda. (2) Ebola (3) Rabies (4) HIV (5) Smallpox (6) Hantavirus or Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) discovered in 1993 in the USA; (7) Influenza ( that is, deadly flu pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, which began in 1918 and killed an estimated 50 million people; (8) Dengue (1950s) in the Philippines and Thailand, a virus carried by mosquitoes; (9) Rotavirus (severe diarrheal illness among babies and young children); (10)SARS-CoV- an acute respiratory syndrome or SARS first appeared in 2002 in the Guangdong Province of Southern China, according to the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.).
It was said to have been contracted from bats, to nocturnal mammals called civets and then to humans. (11) SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the same large family of viruses as SARS-CoV, known as Coronavirus, first identified in December 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The virus is also believed to have likely originated in bats, like SARS-CoV, and passed through an intermediate animal before infecting people and (12) MERS-CoVcauses Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS, which sparked an outbreak in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and another in South Korea in 2015. We have the website called Livescience to thank for the information above. Thus, if our memory or documented records are any guide, the novel coronavirus, as hinted above, began as a local affair, then snowballed into a national emergency and thereafter spread its tentacles far afield to become an international disaster, and, finally, after an intense period of dithering over the true status of the faceless ogre, the WHO characterised it as a pandemic. The world had hung on tenterhooks, moping on in bated breath as it followed the truly cataclysmic trajectory of the virus as it played havoc with humankind scarcely differentiating between race or skin colour, class or status, creed or ideology, Northern Hemisphere or Global South. From the United Kingdom to France, Italy, Germany and Spain, from Iran to Africa, Latin America (notably Brazil) to the USA, humongous fatalities lay in the wake of the invisible killer. Coming closer home, we were informed that sub-Saharan Africa would be the worst-hit given its storied incapacities – a basket-case of low-income nation-states still on foreign receivership, hobbled by infrastructure deficit especially poor health-care infrastructure, overpopulation, poor diet, hunger, starvation, corruption and sub-mental response mechanism in crisis situations, among others. In Nigeria, just as it happened with Ebola, it was an Italian visitor who first brought death to our shores in the shape of the Covid-19 and later some affluent and politically well-connected nationals who, at the time, were marooned overseas, and needed to return home. Against medical advice, these highly-placed citizens had entered into the country and consequently spread the virus. From a few infected individuals to ten, twenty — and now we have thousands of cases in Nigeria alone.
Lagos since inception has been the epicentre of the virus for obvious reasons, being the most populous state in the country. Credit must be given to the authorities, both at the state and federal level, that is the Lagos State Response Team and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 as well as the National Centre for Disease Control (the NCDC) for putting in place precautionary and preventive safety measures to beat the virus, such measures as tracing, disease surveillance, containment and isolation centres (Yaba, LUTH, Onikan, etc. in Lagos) and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital and elsewhere. People were and are still requested to observe social distancing, use of hand sanitizer, wearing of face-masks, avoidance of touch to eye, nose and mouth, orifices through which the virus can gain entry into the body and wreak havoc. As was done in most places across the world, many African countries were put on lockdown with people restricted to their homes. In the report captioned “The latest on the innovations that will let us go back to normal”, Bill Gates disclosed that “more than 1.6 million people have died in the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 75 million cases and tens of trillions of dollars in economic damages.” He also noted that “computer models suggest that the pandemic could get even worse”, with new variants being discovered, for instance in the U.K. and South Africa. This brings us to the race to find or develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus pandemic. As the saying goes, a drowning man will catch at straw, so as the world roiled and reeled under the body-blows inflicted by COVID-19, the initial response to the global emergency was understandably haphazard, with people reaching for herbal preparations, concoctions, do—It-Yourself mixtures and other placebos collectively grouped under so-called ‘Home Remedies’.
To be sure, Madagascar was one of the first countries to go down that route, developing what they called ‘Organics’ or some similar-sounding name. As the name suggests, the ‘vaccine’ was made from organic sources or materials, possibly tree bark and juices extracted from plants, among other ingredients. Madagascar’s president was expectedly booed out of court and consigned to the Philistines. His offence? For daring to rush in where angels fear to tread: for attempting to help the world solve a global conundrum, however crude or rudimentary. Here in Nigeria, our former Election Tsar and pharmacist, Professor Maurice Iwu had announced to his compatriots, who have not forgiven him the sin of umpiring an electoral heist, that he has found the cure for the deadly virus. He could as well have been flogging a dead horse. Spectacularly snubbed, Iwu has promptly returned to the anonymity of his humdrum existence, licking his wounds in agonized silence. Beyond this, you can hardly hear a bang or even a whimper within the science-and-technology community in Nigeria, nay, Africa as far the frenetic race to stop the lethal infection dead in its tracks goes. It is difficult to tell what their constraints are – financial, institutional, environmental, intellectual or sheer incompetence or failure of nerve? It would seem the science community in Africa has gone AWOL while the West is hard at work trying to save the world. At the start of things, the question was: Who will be the first to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus? Where will our help come from? How will the vaccine work? Bill Gates, again, provides some illumination in this regard: “It works by using messenger RNA to deliver instructions that cue your body to produce the distinctive spike protein. Then your immune system kicks in and attacks anything with that spike on it, including the COVID-19 virus”.
But even before it gets to this advanced stage, researchers would have experimented with what they refer to as dexamethasone trial and also monodonal antibodies in their search for the vaccine that will finally deliver us from this latest pandemic. Interestingly, we hear that some countries have been able to successfully develop vaccines for COVID-19, among them Russia, China, the UK, Germany and the USA. Whilst it does not strike the discerning minds as surprising that Western media have completely eclipsed the Russia and China feats, barely mentioning their vaccines under-breath and in grumbles, we have been inundated no end with the music of vaccines developed by Astra Zereca, Pfizer and Moderna and are BioNTech. In terms of the degrees of efficacy, the Astra Zereca vaccine was said to be on average around 70 percent effective; Pfizer and Moderna, 94 – 95 percent effective. Having secured official approval for emergency use of the vaccines, relevant authorities in the health-care sector have begun rolling out the vaccines and giving them to the old, the elderly and health-care workers on the frontlines as well as top government functionaries and politicians. Among top government personalities who have received the vaccines are Vice-President Mike Pence and President-Elect Joe Biden. Some challenges still remain. First, dosage and infusion challenges. Second, making testing less painful, what Bill Gates colourfully describes as “jam-a-stick-to-the-back-of-your-throat COVID-19 test.” Third, disease surveillance. Fourth, funding, always a concern somewhat mitigated by sponsors such as national governments (e.g., USA and Germany), philanthropic organisations such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), etc. Some observers of global trends have remarked that the politics of vaccine has now replaced the old arms race, or the denuclearisation initiative, cyber warfare, globalisation of western culture and civilisation and theage-old tug-of-war between capitalism and socialism. Consequently, the field of conflict and contestation between the West and the rest has shifted to pharmaceuticals – the vaccine war.
Unsurprisingly, the politics of vaccine has been complicated by a welter of conspiracy theories which has set social media on fire and skewered peoples of the world. Perhaps one of the most recurrent and vexatious theories is the 5G. It is rumoured that the “Big Reveal” arising from an autopsy performed on a dead body from the COVID-19 shows that the COVID-19 does not exist as a virus and that it is a global scam. They claim that people are dying due to “Amplified Global G5 Electromagnetic Radiation.” Closely related to this theory is the belief that the novel coronavirus did not originate in bats in Wuhan, China but rather Chinese scientists working at the behest of the State, had developed the virus in a laboratory as an anti-Western stratagem to prosecute the China – USA trade war. The tectonic shift from a dollarized unipolar world order to an RMB-dominated Chinese empire or a New World Order dominated by China is at the root of COVID-19. Commentators point to a plethora of evidence warranting their claim. For instance, you are told that COVID-19 is the fulfillment of a long-hidden secret of a global cabal –President George W. Bush was quoted as predicting today’s world of COVID-19, a bunch of Hollywood films, sci-fi films, animation movies, best-selling novels, among others have presaged what the world is experiencing today. So, where’s the accident in all of this? they ask. Naysayers also wonder at the supersonic speed with which vaccines have been developed for the virus whereas none has been found or developed for malaria, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS and cancer.
What is going on? Added to the interesting scenario are spooky theories about the so-called End-Time agenda of the Anti-Christ who, it is alleged, is, behind the scenes, using iconic figures like Bill and Melinda Gates to underwrite, on the one hand, genetically-modified-organism (GMO) farm produce manufactured to depopulate the Global South and, on the other, fund research efforts to prepare the earth for his coming. The internet and social media is awash with tall tales and hair-raising demonstrations of the count-down to the Last Day and the Long Night after. Analysts ostensibly drawing inspiration and information from the Bible tell us we are living on borrowed time, the end is nigh. Jesus Christ is at the door. The Rapture of the Saints is upon us! Some have given us dates with narrow margins of error. Thus, the vaccine for COVID-19 is seen as a grand plot by Satan’s army to establish a one-world government, through the implant of nano-chip in human bodies resulting in changing their DNA and turning them to 5G carriers and unconscious agents of the Devil. Receiving the vaccine, the argument goes, is synonymous with being branded with the Mark of the Beast – 666! Interestingly, Bill Gates has reacted to this, calling it, ‘false conspiracy theories”. In other words, there is absolutely no basis for all this fear of profiling, of scapegoatism. No Orwellian Big Brother anywhere is watching you. There are no “thought police” anywhere. Neither should we expect a Foucaldian Panopticon anywhere in the world.
What should concern us instead is the testing challenge in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, the vaccine is stored at temperatures as low as – 70˚C which makes it particularly difficult to distribute in developing countries, especially tropical Africa. Many African countries cannot afford the most accurate tests. They do not have the infrastructure to conduct surveillance studies and information is obsolete, not up-to-date. Nigeria, for instance, as at 3 January 2021 has confirmed 89,163 COVID-19 cases, including 1,302 deaths, according to the figures released by the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Virologist Sunday Omilabu, Director of the Centre for Human and Zoonotic Virology at the Lagos University College of Medicine and Teaching Hospital forecast a surge in COVID-19 due to Nigerians’ carefree attitude to the pandemic. He said that Africa needed to do more genetic sequencing to monitor the virus’s mutation and be better equipped to deal with it. Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, W.H.O.’s regional director for Africa averred that: “In the past 28 days, 10 countries – Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda – have reported the highest number of new cases, accounting for 90% of all infections in Africa.”On a final note, since the COVID-19 pandemic is here with us, we will do well to steer clear of all the noise and confusion generated around conspiracy theories, scientific and/or religious, and strictly observe safety and health precautionary measures to stay alive. HAPPY NEW YEAR!
-Chris Anyokwu, PhD., Associate Professor of English, University of Lagos.