Local Vaccines Production Crucial in Tackling Local Diseases – NIPRD DG

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Dr Obi Peter Adigwe is the new director general and chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD). In this exclusive interview with Pharmanews, Adigwe emphasises the importance of local vaccines production, arguing that this should be the ultimate aim of any nation that is committed to addressing the healthcare needs of its citizenry. The NIPRD boss equally discusses the strategies currently being implemented by his administration to reposition the institute. Excerpts:

Congratulations on your appointment as director general and chief executive officer of NIPRD. How did you feel about your emergence?

The euphoria has now worn off and the onerous responsibility associated with the appointment has dawned on me. I must first however express my gratitude to God for this appointment. Secondly I am thankful to the government for not only putting together the rigorous and comprehensive interview process that led to my selection, but also for the confidence they reposed in the system which is evidenced by the consequent appointment of the candidate that emerged with the highest score in the interview process.

Dr Obi Peter Adigwe

That being said, the appointment is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. I have attained the relevant local and international degrees from some of the world’s best institutions. This, together with my cognate experience and extensive network has prepared me for this role. However, I must confess that divine Intervention is probably the most important factor that has stimulated the momentum which has characterised my take off in office. This has manifested in various forms, including new contacts, new ideas and immense favour.

The pharmaceutical industry is facing a lot of challenges with local production, as importation of drugs continues to weaken local manufacturers. How far can NIPRD go in ameliorating these challenges?

As you may be aware, while I was at the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMGMAN), my contribution was key to the development of the medicines security concept. This concept has now been widely accepted and adopted, nationally and internationally.

At the PSN National Conference in Abia, in November 2017, the Yakassai-led PSN borrowed a leaf from our concept to argue that the development of a robust pharma sector was critical to national security. Internationally as well, I have presented this same argument. At the FAP-D Expert Working Group which held in Cairo last year, under the auspices of the African Union, I made a strong presentation on medicines security and this was adopted to underpin the African position.

As the CEO of the PMGMAN Secretariat, I also formulated and spearheaded the advocacy strategy which led to the institution of various policies that encouraged local manufacturing, such as the 2016 Fiscal Policy and the Presidential Executive Order Number 003, where procurement of locally manufactured pharmaceuticals was specifically mandated in section 4f. We also developed a robust and comprehensive strategy that enabled us push the local manufacturing agenda in over 30 MDAs, including Customs, CBN and NESREA.

Based on this, there is obviously no doubt that I am very aware of the challenges in the sector, and have, even before my appointment as director general, been instrumental to the development of relevant strategies to address them.

Since my assumption in office, this has therefore been one of my key priorities, especially since my institute’s Act specifically mandates this.  As such, the institute has begun to engage in further activities that will build on existing policies and my considerable experience in this area. For instance, we have successfully lobbied for a fourfold increase of the pharmaceutical sector representation at the Presidential Business Forum, which is arguably the highest level of government engagement with the private sector.

We have also begun to work assiduously on the establishment of a very high level executive committee that will further expedite development in this area.  Being in government at this level, you obviously know that there are many initiatives that we are currently pushing that I cannot discuss in detail, until we get presidential approval.

There are also many other programmes outside government, which we have initiated and are currently driving. One example is the Pharma Colloquium that we are putting together and are hoping to unveil later this year. One of the key objectives of the colloquium is to bring together all relevant stakeholders in the industry to chart a formidable way towards developing a sustainable pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. Some of the areas that we will be looking at include: harmonising and consolidating researchers and stakeholders participation towards local production of medicines; improving the policy milieu to support local manufacturing; and promotion of indigenous production of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) and excipients.

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That being said, I would like to place it on record that there are over 500 importers in the Nigerian Pharma Industry who also play key roles in the National Ecosystem, especially since the country cannot currently produce all the medicines and commodities it consumes. It should be understood that access to medicines is key, and therefore drugs that are not produced in sufficient quantities, or at all, must be imported. As such, NIPRD engages with these important stakeholders in the ecosystem to ensure that while local capacity is being built to satisfy local consumption, importers can fill the gap by ensuring that the population has access to safe, affordable and high quality medicines.

 

The nation has witnessed several disease outbreaks, which have claimed and still claiming lives. We’ve had the likes of Lassa fever, Ebola, monkey pox, yellow fever, meningitis and so on, without local vaccines to combat these diseases. As the new DG, do you have a plan for local vaccines production?

About two years ago, following the outbreak of Cerebro Spinal Meningitis (CSM) serotype C that killed close to a thousand people, I was interviewed by The Guardian on the possibility for local production of vaccines as a panacea for the perennial shortage of vaccines for CSM and other vaccine preventable diseases in our setting. Among the experts interviewed, I was the only one who staked his reputation to come out strongly in support of local manufacturing of these products, and this is what I said verbatim: “Local vaccines production to address local diseases is the ultimate aim of any Nation with robust strategies to address healthcare challenges.

“Unfortunately, despite the great potential of the Nigerian pharmaceutical sector, relevant policies, partnerships have not either been articulated or implemented to stimulate local vaccines production. Currently, Nigeria has over a third of all medicines manufacturing plants on the continent. We also have the highest number of relevant international quality certifications and awards in this part of the world. These are significant resources that can be leveraged within the right policy framework to expedite local vaccines production, not just for the nation, but also for the continent.”

Following this interview, I cannot begin to tell you the number of phone calls I got from people who felt that they should challenge my position; in fact, I was roundly vilified by some very senior colleagues who never believed that we could ever produce vaccines in Nigeria. Thank God the government listened and engaged with us. The result was the six billion naira agreement that the federal government signed with a local manufacturer to produce vaccines in Nigeria.

It is however not yet uhuru, as this project still has a very long way to go. All relevant stakeholders must work together to deliver a positive outcome, not just for Nigeria, but for the entire continent. In this vein, I must commend people like Dr Ihekweazu of the NCDC for the multidisciplinary engagement approach adopted in building a robust and comprehensive framework for disease control.

Apart from policy aspect which I had already been engaged in prior to my appointment, it will interest you to know that NIPRD is statutorily charged with research and development of vaccines and related products. Since my assumption, we have now actively begun to look at developing the relevant competencies to comprehensively support this emergent sector.

As the CEO of an institution saddled with the responsibility of research and development of drugs, vaccines, phytomedicines and others, how do you intend to boost the production of phytomedicines for the treatment of terminal diseases like cancer, diabetes and hypertension?

As you are aware, NIPRD developed NIPRISAN, which is derived from phytomedicinal origin; so obviously this is an area where the institute has considerable expertise. However, when I was appointed, we started by taking stock of the true situation of affairs and facilities on ground to better understand how we could leverage our manpower and achievements, to promote collaborations and partnerships that would enable us secure more funding and increase activities. This we achieved using tools such as facility audits and staff forum engagements which have now helped boost personnel confidence, as well as address welfare issues within the financial capacity of the institute.

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As you are aware, we are one of the only institute of our kind that has attained both the ISO 9001 and the 17025 certifications, and with close to 60 MScs and PhDs, also one of the most resourced Pharma R & D organisations on this side of the globe. So this formed the basis for our engagement strategy for old and new partners.

Based on this, we have now however started to think outside the box to ensure that apart from the federal budget envelope, activities by the institute can attract funding from activities with non-traditional partners. For instance, we initiated new dimensions in getting external partnerships by the deployment of the Contextual Processing Protocol (CPP) projects designed to harness natural phytomedicinal potential of local plants, whilst improving human capital development by creating semi-skilled jobs for youths and women at the rural grassroots and also increasing revenue generation for the states.

So far, very high-level discussions are being held with Kaduna, Edo, Lagos, Ondo and Anambra State governments to deploy the CPP projects. Our target is to do at least half of all the states in Nigeria before the year runs out.

Other stakeholders that we have engaged with are international entities with whom interaction can enable a robust and comprehensive exchange of knowledge and experience. We met recently with the Indian Government (through the Indian High Commission in Abuja), who you know have reasonably developed their traditional medicine sector, including the use of phytomedicines. We are currently working closely with them and other countries with similar expertise, to learn more about how to develop our sector.

We also met recently with the leadership of the Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines (TCAM) Department of the Federal Ministry of Health, who have the mandate to develop policy for that sector. As NIPRD has done a significant amount of work in this area over the years, we welcomed the establishment of this department in the ministry and have now initiated the development of a framework as well as an action committee to further guide engagement of practitioners that will ultimately validate and formalise use of phytomedicines.

Looking at the worth of the pharmaceutical industry, which is estimated at $1.3bn, which accounts for less than 0.25 per cent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), what strategies could be employed to boost it?

One of the major reasons why the Pharma Sector is not yet given its due consideration in Nigeria is because it is frequently viewed from the narrow prism of only access to healthcare, whereas the sector also has great potential for socioeconomic development.

To address this, we are now reorienting key players in government and other relevant sectors about the true potential that the sector has, with respect to enabling the nation reach its overarching socioeconomic objectives, whilst still achieving its primary goal of improving access to healthcare.

In line with this thinking, at NIPRD, we are now re-engineering our projects to drive key government policies such as job creation, human capital development and revenue generation. The framework we are developing will therefore ensure that the pharma sector will not only improve access to health in Nigeria, but will also increase other socioeconomic indices, such as employment generation, knowledge transfer, capacity building, attraction of foreign direct investment, and backward integration in ancillary industries.

It is on record that the production of pharmaceuticals is associated with some of the highest value addition chains, in terms of backward integration and ancillary sector development. Empirical evidence exists that suggests that for every job created in the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector, between five to ten corresponding jobs are created in the wider economy. This makes the pharma sector a powerful tool for stimulating employment generation.

With prioritisation of the sector, the emergent framework will also support mergers, acquisitions and partnerships that leverage the current considerable infrastructure that exists in the sector. The opportunities thus created will generate sizeable interests from new investors, as well as other global players in the industry, and consequently attract foreign direct investment to the economy.  The framework and consequent recognition of Nigeria as the pharma manufacturing hub can even become a basis for anchoring emergent development initiatives for other sectors.

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With respect to backward integration, the prioritisation of the sector will further potentiate innovation and research initiatives already being spearheaded by NIPRD. For instance, activities on excipients like pharmaceutical grade starch, cellulose and alcohol, which can all be sourced locally from various natural resources, such as cassava and grains. The framework being developed will therefore enable a seamless nexus for these other local industries that provide such input to the pharmaceutical industry.

Additionally, activities at the institute aimed at training local people to harness Nigeria’s abundant rich natural biodiversity will be accelerated by the prioritisation of the sector. With the framework in place, targeted activities for the local production of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) from petrochemicals, as well as natural sources, can commence in earnest.

The synergistic contribution of these aforementioned aspects is just a part of the strategy that NIPRD is developing to enable the pharma sector attract the relevant focus and attention from government and other relevant stakeholders. The prioritisation and focus is what is expected to stimulate a virtuous cycle that will consequently result in a more significant contribution to National socioeconomic objectives, including the GDP.

What is your vision for NIPRD in the next 10 years?

The vision of the institute is to build a centre of excellence in research and development of phytomedicines, pharmaceutical and biological products, drugs and diagnostics, towards improving the health and wellbeing of Nigerians and mankind. I think this vision, as articulated by my predecessors, is apt; and my resources are aimed at developing strategies and plans to enable its timely achievement.

Regarding my plans for NIPRD, these can be broadly divided into short, medium and long term and I am very sure that one interview cannot cover these three. So, for now, I will just take you through a few of the short term ones, particularly as it concerns the development of a sustainable funding mechanism, which remains the biggest challenge facing the Institute.

To diversify funding stream for the institute, one of the first things we have begun to do, is improving the Research to Market Product Ratio. To achieve this, we are now leveraging existing research, together with our significant knowledge, contacts and network of manufacturing companies and other relevant stakeholders to begin discussions around bringing more quality products to market.

We have also started to work towards enabling an increase in the inflow of grants and research funds both for individual researchers and for the institute. We have started to discuss with a number of non-traditional partners to ensure that our perspective, while being contextual, is also multidisciplinary and unique.

Currently, NIPRD has one of the best faculties in this side of the world. Leveraging this, we have begun to develop needs-based modules and programmes that can help provide contextual home-grown solutions to our healthcare issues. Following this phase, we aim to organise Trainings and Workshops to build contextual capacity for various aspects of the industry and the healthcare system. This approach will help to generate funds for NIPRD, while also building relevant competencies in identified areas.

As I said earlier, we have also now developed our Contextual Processing Protocol, aimed at stimulating how we as a nation are able to harness our natural resources. In addition to this, we are now expediting pharma raw materials research and, hopefully, once both closely related projects come fully on-stream, NIPRD can earn revenue while the Nation’s health and economy benefits.

These are just a few of the strategies we are using to address our biggest challenge, and that should give you a flavour of what our mid to long term plans are. One thing to note, though, in all the new initiatives that we are developing, our primary focus remains the development of products and processes that will improve access to medicines and healthcare.

However, we also by design, ensure that all the projects that we are developing will also increase key socioeconomic indices, such as employment generation, knowledge transfer, capacity building, attraction of foreign direct investment, and backward integration in ancillary industries. This systems’ approach has proven to be the most effective and efficient for pharmacy to make its mark in Nigeria and on the continent.

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