Contrary to the widespread assumption that scientific research institutes in Nigeria are lackadaisical towards tackling the recent outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in the country, Director General of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), Professor K.S. Gamaniel, has revealed, in a recent chat with Pharmanews, that the institute was actively implementing efforts to provide the specific facilities needed to develop a viable local cure for the deadly disease.
Prof. Gamaniel, who noted that Nigeria had the human resources and intellectual capability to develop its own vaccine for the treatment and prevention of the Ebola virus, also revealed that the institute had entered into partnership with other relevant bodies, including the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Oxford University, and Innovative Biotech USA, for research and development of therapeutic agents, including vaccines that will help in preventing the disease.
He further disclosed that an internal call for research proposals was made in the institute on Friday 15 August for Research Fellows to come up with innovative research plans, including those responding to the urgent national health emergency on EVD.
Speaking on the experimental anti-Ebola drug, ZMapp, Prof. Gamaniel stated that the drug was the result of a scientific collaboration between companies in both the US and Canada, as well as the governments of both countries, adding that while the drug’s components and manufacturing processes might be replicable, it would be illegal to do so, due to issues of intellectual property rights.
He noted that, if Nigeria, or any other country in the world, would like to produce the same drug for its use, permission must be sought and obtained through a formal licence or agreement.
The NIPRD helmsman however assured that the federal government had concluded plans to locally commence research for treatment of the disease, adding that already, the FG had set-up the Treatment Research Group for the Ebola National Response, while the relevant research Institutions were collaborators in the initiative.
Below is the full text of the interview:
As the DG of NIPRD, what are the steps taken by the institute in searching for relevant plants to prevent and cure the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD)?
The National institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) carries out research and development (R&D) activities routinely on medicinal plants and products, as part of its official mandates. These R&D activities include the screening of medicinal plants with demonstrable immunogenic and antiviral properties. The Department of Medicinal Plant Research and Traditional Medicine (MPR&TM) has been specifically commissioned to carry out this task through its team of researchers. As at today, up to 15 of such medicinal plants have been so identified and work is on-going to ascertain their immunogenic and antiviral activities.
Efforts are now being intensified to provide the specific facilities required for screening and working with the deadly Ebola virus in the institute and to identify competent collaborators on this assignment. Meanwhile, an internal call for research proposals was made in the institute on Friday 15 August for Research Fellows to come up with innovative research plans, including those responding to this urgent National Health Emergency on EVD.
A species of tobacco has been recognised as one of the active components in the production of ZMapp, the experimental drug for curing EVD. Is this species of tobacco available in Nigeria?
Tobacco is Nicotiana tabacum and it is found in Nigeria. But the strain used for the cultivation of the antibodies used for ZMapp might not be found here. We should know that tobacco plant is not part of the recipe for ZMapp; the plant was only used as carrier to multiply the artificial antibodies which was later extracted from the plant to make the recipe for the treatment.
The artificial antibodies used in the ZMapp treatment were created from a particular tobacco-plant strain found in Australia. The plants were genetically modified to serve as an ideal medium to grow the massive amounts of the antibodies needed for the treatment. The antibodies were then harvested and ground into the green mix used in the serum doses. Charles Arntzen, a plant biotechnology expert at Arizona State University, said that the appropriate viral genes for the antibodies that the scientists want are fused to the tobacco genes, infecting the tobacco with the virus. The plant produces antibodies that are subsequently separated from the plant when it is ground up.
What would it cost to embark on similar research in Nigeria?
Even if we know what was used to make the ZMapp, we cannot go ahead to produce such because of issues of intellectual property rights. If Nigeria or any other country in the world would like to produce the same ZMapp for its own use, permission has to be sought and obtained through a formal licence or agreement signed to that effect by both parties, irrespective of whether the receiving party has the capacity to produce the product on its own.
I must point out however that Nigeria has the human resources and intellectual capability to develop its own vaccine for treatment and prevention of Ebola virus. The institute, in collaboration with other relevant bodies, have started putting in place plans to commence research in the area of treatment and vaccine for prevention of EVD.
ZMapp™ is the result of a scientific collaboration between Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Inc. and LeafBio (San Diego, CA), Defyrus Inc. (Toronto, Canada), the U.S. Government and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). ZMapp™ is composed of three “humanised” monoclonal antibodies manufactured in plants, specifically Nicotiana tabacum. It is an optimised cocktail combining the best components of MB-003 (Mapp) and ZMAb (Defyrus/PHAC). ZMapp™ was first identified as a drug candidate in January 2014 and has not yet been evaluated for safety in humans.
EVD has been with us in Africa for a while now. Is NIPRD collaborating with any international research institute to tackle the infection?
Yes, NIPRD has initiated collaboration with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Oxford University, and Innovative Biotech USA for research and development of therapeutic agents including vaccines.
Since health facilities and staff stand the highest risk of being infected, how can they detect an Ebola patient before admission? And if detected, should they admit or reject the patient?
The essence of our collaboration with institutions like LUTH is to work with experts like Prof. Omilabu, who is a renowned virologist, with sufficient experience to handle victims of the EVD. Patients with EVD shall be isolated and workers shall wear personal protective equipment before getting near the infected persons. No patent will be rejected, as this will be unethical and inhuman, but all handlers will be adequately trained to handle patients safely.
Aside from the routine preventive measures, is there any other comment you would like to add?
The Ebola viral infection has a 90 per cent fatality rate and, so far, there is no cure. It is imperative that hard and unusual decisions would be inevitable in order to save lives. Particularly for drug treatments, the use of experimental drugs may be necessary.