The Nigerian Government had announced earlier this year that they expect to receive 100,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in February through the Covax initiative, the World Health Organization program to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
However, the good news of the vaccine arrival is overshadowed by doubt as experts believe that the country may not distribute them.
Oyewale Tomori, a virology professor who was a member of the World Health Organisation’s SAGE committee on immunization, has said that “It is not possible” for Nigeria to store the Pfizer Vaccines the country is expecting effectively.
The Pfizer vials must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, way below the regular freezers’ capacity, and many countries globally have struggled to accommodate this. It has a limited shelf life once defrosted. Dr Faisal Shuaib, chief executive of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency, said that the country had ultra-low temperature storage facilities at its National Strategic Cold Store in the capital Abuja, but had yet to provide any details on how frozen vials could be transported beyond it.
At the moment, Nigeria has five standard cold storage facilities. They are located in the major cities of Abuja, Lagos and Kano.
Prof Tomori says these freezers are already occupied with other medicines. Health facilities beyond the main cities struggle to keep vaccines stored at minus 20 degrees Celsius, and the country’s electricity shortages compound the Pfizer vaccine’s distribution he added.
Tomori said Nigeria would only manage vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, by China, Russia or India, because they do not require a deep freeze. The Moderna vaccine requires storage at minus 20. “I would push for the regulation and approval of those vaccines rather than waste our time on Pfizer,” he said.
Nigeria hopes to receive 42 million COVID-19 vaccine donations through Covax to cover 20 per cent of its population. An additional 40 per cent will be procured to achieve herd immunity, Ben Akabueze, director-general of the Budget office, said during a virtual 2021 budget presentation. However, so far, Nigeria has only secured enough vaccines for less than 10 per cent of its population, according to data analysed by consultancy firm Development Reimagined.
The Seychelles and Morocco are currently the only African countries to have secured more than the 70 per cent minimum required for herd immunity. The African Union hopes to secure a provisional 270 million doses for the continent by the end of 2021. 600 million doses are also expected through Covax, although that scheme “can only cover 20% of the African population,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa said.
Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) told reporters during a press briefing last week that “We’ve had a lot of experience with vaccination campaigns given the intensity of the work we did around polio. The target population might be a little different, but we understand very well the steps required.
With the spike in corona-virus cases in Nigeria, Officials plan to roll out rapid diagnostic testing in the five health facilities cut across Abuja and Lagos. Still, there is no planned roll out to other states until February.
Overwhelmed hospitals have struggled with access to oxygen. “The biggest indicator that will put us under pressure is the number of deaths,” Dr Ihekweazu said. “We must keep working very hard to save as many people as we can, given that the limitations are clear in the deficit of African health systems.”
Professor Tomori suggested that while Nigeria is waiting to finalize its vaccine purchases, it should be actively learning from other countries’ vaccination campaigns. “This is the time to be monitoring what is happening in Europe and what is happening in America because whether we like it or not, these challenges they are facing will also be with us,” he explained.