Prof. M. A. Akanmu is the dean, Faculty of Pharmacy, Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Ile-Ife. In this exclusive interview with Pharmanews, he reveals the steps being taken by the faculty in researching into the discovery and design of potential antiviral agents from natural products, as well as re-purposing of existing drugs, based on current knowledge on the mode of entry and replication of COVID-19. Excerpts:
Kudos on your activities so far in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the production of hand sanitizers, what other initiatives have being taken by the faculty to curb the spread of the virus?
I will still want to talk on the production of “Ifetizer”. In response to the recent cases of coronavirus in the country, the Faculty of Pharmacy came up with a proactive measure to manufacture “Ifetizer”, our own brand of hand sanitizer. We made it available during the induction ceremony of our final year students on 17 March 2020, where we expected a large crowd to participate in the induction.
I was convinced that one little way we could contribute to the prevention of the spread of this coronavirus infection was to initiate the production of “Ifetizer” to be used during the ceremony. We were able to achieve this objective by making sure that fund was made available by myself as the dean, and we were able to produce limited quantities that were used by all the people that attended the programme to sanitise their hands, especially before they were allowed to enter the venue.
We also used the opportunity of the induction ceremony to sensitise the public on the precautionary measures to be taken in preventing the spread of the COVID-19. We equally distributed free samples of 90ml bottle of “Ifetizer” to the dignitaries in attendance. It is instructive to note that this sensitisation and proactive measure took place exactly one week before the index case arrived Nigeria.
We have since scaled up production for distribution to the larger community, on demand, especially because hand sanitizer was becoming a scarce commodity since the index case in Nigeria was reported and products of dubious quality started appearing. The university management has secured and distributed certain quantities of 250ml bottles of Ifetizer produced by the faculty. We are currently working on how we can register the sanitizer and a handwash product for commercial scale production.
I am also a member of the University Committee on Covid-19, that is chaired by the Provost of College of Health Sciences. The committee has been involved in the sensitisation of the university community and the public on COVID-19.
It’s obvious that the closure of schools, as necessitated by the outbreak, has affected the academic calendar in some ways. How has the faculty been reaching out to students during this period?
OAU announced the closure of the university on 20 March 2020, effective from Monday, 23 March 2020, in order to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Some lecturers have been interacting with some of the students and I personally have been reaching out to the students through their class representatives and the PANS president, to encourage them to continue to read their books and stay safe since we are yet to commence online learning with regular students of the institution.
I would like to state that most schools that have closed down due to this COVID-19 are making efforts to find stop-gap solutions to continue teaching, but the quality of learning depends greatly on the level and quality of digital access, which we all know is a major problem in this environment.
It should be noted that the best response from any university in this environment at this period is mere “emergency remote teaching”, as opposed to well-organised and validated online teaching methods, and, at its best, has limited benefits, since it cannot be substituted for laboratory practicals and externship training in relation to pharmacy training.
From the side of students as learners, some universities in South Africa for instance, are even still in the process of partnering with government and the private sector to provide access to quality internet service and raise fund to procure laptops to loan to students. At the faculty here, our postgraduate students still have limited access to the laboratories. However, they can still do a lot of work remotely with open communication with their research supervisors.
Indeed, OAU and the entire Nigerian university system would have to review the current experience, document lessons learnt and strengthen the system to be more resilient to shocks. As it were, we are hoping that this does not drag for too long. At some point, the university will necessarily have to revise its academic calendar, review the situation and take appropriate decisions because, indeed, Pharmacy does not stand alone and cannot function alone as an academic programme.
Is there any research ongoing in the faculty towards developing natural products or vaccines for COVID-19?
We have been working on some natural products that are effective against bacteria and viruses. I have just inaugurated a committee of three young academics to prepare a draft proposal for a faculty research project on discovery and design of potential antiviral agents from natural products and re-purposing of existing drugs, based on current scientific knowledge on the mode of entry and mode of replication of COVID-19.
The small committee was selected based on competence in computer-assisted drug design, previous experience in isolation of antiviral compounds from plant sources as published in peer-reviewed and reputable journals, and specialisation in pharmaceutical microbiology. The proposal will be processed through the statutory Faculty Research Committee with contributions from the entire faculty and with contributions from other collaborators within the larger OAU academic community and beyond. I would like to emphasise that the university’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Eyitope Ogunbodede is greatly interested in the proposal and he is well informed about the developments.
With respect to vaccine, we are not working on the development of vaccines because we don’t have purpose-built infrastructure that is required for research on viruses, with primary concern for biosafety, even though we have experts in this area. For example, one of our young academic staff had some experience on development of vaccine as a postdoc at the Centre for Disease Control in the US as a WHO-TDR Fellow/Visiting Scientist at Infectious Disease Research Institute, and he is collaborating with other researchers.
In what ways is the present lockdown affecting pharmacy students and what is the plan towards ameliorating this at resumption?
Basically we expect that this lockdown would have affected their academic activities and thus there is need for them to keep their morale high. Based on my interactions with the students through their class representatives and the PANS president, I was informed that the lockdown and the eventual economic effect have really incapacitated them and most of them might not have been able to participate in online classes (if there had been any) because they don’t have the capacity to participate due to the cost of getting data, apart from the current bad network problem and unavailability of power supply in some places. They also said that they would like to have revisions on the previous lectures they had before the university was closed down due to COVID-19 lockdown.
I would like to state that we will do all our possible best in making sure that revisions are carried out on various previous lectures they had before the commencement of the new ones when they resume back to school. We will continue to interact with them during this lockdown through their leaders and also make sure we put everything in place to try to encourage them to work very hard to regain the lost time during the lockdown.
What is your advice to students during this period of staying at home?
The students should make sure they are safe and obey the stay-at-home order. Each student is advised to continuously interact with the assigned official adviser and take advantage of the course outline already available to them to guide self-study before formal resumption of teaching. It is hopeful that this will complement what they have learnt before the closure of the university.