Bracing up to the COVID-19 variants – By Tajudeen Kareem

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Nigeria’s managers of coronavirus are scratching their heads – praying, hoping and working hard – not only to keep infection rates low, but more importantly, to ensure that the spreading variants of COVID-19 does not sneak into the country.

Penultimate week, the Presidential Steering Committee, PSC, on COVID-19, rolled out revised guidelines and preventive measures to guard against the third wave of the pandemic spreading across many countries. The measures centre around entry and exit from the country as well as vaccination.

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Nigeria had restricted entry from Brazil, India and Turkey. South Africa, Zambia, Rwanda, Namibia; and Uganda have been added to the watchlist. The chairman PSC on COVID-19 and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha has spoken on the possible third wave.

“The four significant variants of concern are Alpha (UK), Beta (SA), Gamma (Brazil) and Delta (India). The Delta variant that has wreaked havoc is not yet found in Nigeria, hence the need to tighten our borders and be more vigilant,” said Mustapha who urged Nigerians not to lower their guards “because we continue to see spikes in some African countries and emergence of variants where the third wave as occurred.”

The new measures come against the backdrop of the successful utilisation of 3.9 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines that Nigeria received in March and April, representing 96 per cent of the 4,024,000 vaccines received so far.

Indeed, the World Health Organisation representative in Nigeria, Dr. Walter Kazadi Mulombo praised Nigeria’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy. He said, at a press conference in Abuja, that other African countries were already looking up to Nigeria to learn how to roll out their vaccinations.

“Even though Africa is lagging behind, Nigeria is among the countries that is distributing the most COVID-19 vaccines. We know that in terms of volume, we are still a long way to go because we have planned to vaccinate more than 100 million of our population, but it is already a good learning base on how we can effectively roll out the COVID-19 vaccination,” said Dr. Mulombo.

Besides scaling up vaccination, the federal government, through the PSC on COVID-19, is not resting on its achievements because as one official said, “there is no black magic against coronavirus.” Specifically, the PSC has constantly reviewed the national strategy in risk communication to discourage vaccine hesitancy and dissemination of fake news.

Other key steps taken by the committee include enforcement of the approved Presidential sanction against all in-bound international travellers who failed to undergo the day-seven post arrival test. It has published the names of defaulters to deter other law breakers.

The PSC deliberately worked to develop new Health Protection Regulations to support existing COVID-19 protocols and to strengthen compliance with non-pharmaceutical interventions across the country.  It also directed private laboratories to put in place measures to validate results and ensure that all passengers are registered on the travel portal before samples are processed to stop the activity of those who issue fake Covid-19 test results to travellers.

The use of Rapid Diagnostic Test-Kits (RDTs) was rolled out in five tertiary health institution and all NYSC CAMPS across the country to ensure massive testing and prevent mass infection.

The committee also ensured that the private sector Coalition-CACOVID, supported the National Response with 100 oxygen cylinders per day between January and March, for distribution to critical care centres in Abuja even as the federal government approved the rehabilitation of five oxygen plants across various tertiary health institutions in Abuja. The president also approved that at least one oxygen plant should be established in each state of the federation immediately.

Working with the Africa CDC and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control on the sequencing of the COVID strains circulating in Nigeria., the PSC has pursued the isolation of different strains of the virus, while also meeting constantly with the Nigerian Governors Forum and key religious and traditional leaders regularly to deepen community engagement and enforcement of protocols.

Nigeria hopes to receive in July/August additional 3.9m doses of the AstraZeneca AZD1222 vaccine. The federal government will procure 29.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) COVID-19 vaccine through the African Union Commission and the AfreximBank arrangement by September. In addition, Abuja hopes to get more vaccines through the magnanimity of President Joe Biden of the United States. Nigeria will also tap into additional vaccines for developing countries worth $775 million for the next two years by the GAVI Vaccine Alliance.

Passengers flying into Nigeria must take a COVID-19 PCR test three days before boarding. Trials of longer duration are invalid, and such a passenger cannot board a Nigeria-bound flight.  “Rapid antigen or antibody test is not acceptable; only PCR test can be used for this purpose. Test validity commences from the time of sample collection,” the revised guideline states.

“For passengers with multiple connections before arrival in Nigeria, the PCR test must be valid within 72 hours of boarding from the first point of departure. Passengers must bring along an electronic or hard copy of their COVID-19 PCR test for presentation at the departure airport and upon arrival in Nigeria,” the PSC also warned.

Passengers must register on the Nigeria online travel portal (Nigeria International Travel Portal – https://nitp.ncdc.gov.ng), where they will fill in their health information. Information required includes contact details. They will then upload their test COVID-19 PCR test with the exemption of children less than 10 years old. Government has promised to prosecute persons who falsify their information.

Passengers would self-isolate for seven days in Nigeria. They would choose a laboratory or sample collection centre based on where they will self-isolate and a bank to pay for the test. Diplomats and children are exempted from paying.

The Executive Director, National Primary Healthcare Development Agency, Dr Faisal Shuaib disclosed that reactions to the vaccines in Nigeria have been within the normal range, with 125 severe AEFI cases and 13 663 mild to moderate cases reported. “These are reactions from normal vaccination and people who experienced any of these have recovered fully and are doing well. More pleasing to mention is that with over three million people vaccinated, Nigeria has not recorded any death case linked with Adverse Event Following Immunization,’ said Shuaib who encouraged citizens to download the MED-SAFETY App and report vaccine side-effects for prompt response.

Shuaib stated, “We have information that some people fear potential side effects and are hesitant to take the vaccine. In some instances, even those who have taken their first jab are afraid of taking the second jab because of side effects. Let me again assure everyone that all vaccinations generate reactions. COVID-19 vaccine is therefore not an exception. We need to understand that the vaccine is safe and effective, and that the reaction would not last, as it only indicates in the individuals that the vaccine is working. So please, think of the long-term benefits of getting vaccinated against COVID-19, than the brief reaction you may experience after taking the vaccine.”

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