A locally developed COVID-19 vaccine prospect in Nigeria, listed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) among 183 others in preclinical trials globally, might cost more to manufacture than the relatively pricey Pfizer-BioNTech and even the considerably cheap AstraZeneca vaccines, BusinessDay findings on vaccine types and platforms show.
The Nigerian vaccine, which is being developed by Ogbomoso-based biomedical research firms, Helix Biogen Consult and Trinity Immonoefficient Laboratory, is based on a production technology that scientific studies suggest is more difficult and expensive to manufacture than mRNA-based vaccines.
The two leading vaccines in the global race for immunity, Pfizer-BioNTech at $14 per dose, and Moderna at $18 per dose, are based on the messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology. The technology uses a synthetic version of the virus to instruct the body cells to produce protein spikes that can trigger immune response. The viral vector-based AstraZeneca is one of the cheapest options at $3, while Novavax, a protein-based vaccine, similar to the one being developed by the Nigerians, costs $16.
According to WHO’s database of COVID-19 vaccine candidates in development, Nigeria’s candidate is a protein sub-unit type based on Escherichia coli, a genetically modified protein technology widely used in vaccine production.
Pushing the research to the height of WHO listing is primarily a result of personal rigour from Oladipo Kolawole, a specialist in Medical Virology, Immunology, and Bioinformatics at Adeleke University, Osun State, and a team of professors from Precious Cornerstone University, Ibadan, and University of Ilorin.
Although the Federal Government released N253.4 million grants to five Nigerian researchers in March, tasked with the potential development of COVID-19 vaccine, Kolawole’s team was not extended the government support.
Due to the complexity involved in prompting an immune response, this type of vaccine costs more to produce than chemically-composed vaccines, such as mRNA vaccines, an analysis by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance on how protein subunits are used against COVID-19, shows.
Also, a March 2021 study by three scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine, Texas, states that other technologies are preferred to Escherichia.
“The technology does not typically provide modifications. This can affect the nature of the immune response and consequently, the functionality of the vaccine,” the study states.
Nigeria’s vaccine candidate is on a list of 67 vaccines in preclinical stage using the protein subunit technology.
The idea of a Nigerian vaccine pricier than brands such as Pfizer and Moderna might be unrealistic for attaining the herd immunity goal, which is 70 percent coverage of the entire population as projected by the government.
It has raised fears that the effort might end up as mere addition to medical knowledge, more so with the research pioneer yet to receive the financial backing necessary from the government.
Currently, the country lacks the pharmaceutical capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccine, suggesting manufacturing might need to be contracted to proven producers abroad, just as the Oxford University, UK partnered with the world largest manufacturer of vaccines, the Serum Institute of India.
A mail from Geneva requesting scientific data and methodology used to develop the proposed vaccine was the breakthrough for the Ogbomoso-based research that kicked off with roughly N7.8 million, hardly enough to see through to production.
If the vaccine scales through the final stage of clinical trials, funding might be the next big hurdle that this Nigerian vaccine development team will face. An answer to funding will go a long way to define the future of the research.
“They should be encouraged. I do know that most of what they are doing is computation. In real life, you need more than what they have, talking of animal experimentation, non-human primates and others. We don’t have all that and that’s my worry,” Oyewale Tomori, a professor of virology, told BusinessDay.
“Funding is a major issue,” he said.
For now, Nigeria vaccination remains tied to freebies from COVAX, the global vaccine initiative and the African Union.