Drug importation will negatively affect Africa’s war against coronavirus - Christland varsity VC
April 7, 2020
In an exclusive interview with Wale Oyewale of Punch
Newspaper, published on Punch.com on 6th April, the Vice-Chancellor of
Chrisland University, Prof. Chinedum Peace Babalola spoke on the research works
that won her the African Union Award; the challenges faced in her research and
why Africa may be the greatest loser in the COVID-19 war.
Tell us about your research works that earned you the African Union Award and
what these outcomes mean to the black race?
The award is the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Regional Price Award for
Scientific Excellence. African Union set up that award many years ago to
recognise those who have performed excellently in various aspects of research.
You are expected to present the key things that you have done and its impacts.
It is scored by top level scholars in Africa. I was privileged to be selected
as one of the winners in 2019 and the award was presented in February. I did my
research in Pharmaco-Kinetics, Pharmaco genetics, etc. I usually look at
the African population and realised that they are genetically different and
many times, drug development, drug discovery and drug trials are without
considerations to African races but at the end of the day, the drugs are pushed
into market and everybody now uses them.
Little or no research is done in clinical trials in the blacks or Africans. So,
I took interest in that, looking at drug dispositions in Africa. We are
genetically different. When we look at the people’s disposition, we can
determine their drug regimen. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. So, I did
a lot of work on the African population. And, in African population, there are
lots of variations. The race that exhibits highest variations are the blacks in
Africa; so, we need to study drugs in Africa so that we can give them the best.
Chances are that we see people who are slow metabolisers and fast metabolisers.
Should you give them the same dosage? I have done some works in African
population that can improve medication. I have also worked on anti-malaria,
drug interactions and more. At times, you go to the hospital and they give you
many drugs. One drug can interact with another and affect the patient.
For instance, I have been able to find out that many times you take
anti-malaria together with antibiotics. Anti-malaria reduces the antibiotics in
our bodies. We have got a lot of data on that. My team and I were the first to
publish a report on that. We also worked on HIV. Apart from that, we did a lot
of works on quality assurance, drug analysis and methods to determine whether drugs
are fake or not fake. A lot of these things are novel and when they are
published in good journals, you are recognised. In the recent past, I did a lot
of capacity building in the whole hub – drug discovery to the end. Looking at
Africa, we import a lot. About 80 per cent of the drugs we use are imported.
That is why coronavirus will affect us a lot. We set up what we called centre
for drug discovery with the aim of empowering, building capacity for Africa on
how to make and regulate their drugs. We ran that programme for five years in
the University of Ibadan and we were able to train a lot of people. The centre
is still there and we are going to do more by the grace of God. For the few
years we ran it, we were able to turn our research into products; we turned
some of our herbal research outcomes to products. I remember when there was
Ebola, we made sanitizers and a lot of things.
Now we are thinking of how do we promote quality medicines circulating now in
our country and across Africa. Those are the things I am now looking more at.
Now, I want to impact more than research and publishing. Really, I did a lot of
work with human beings. I can give you 10 different brands of anti-malaria and
when we take them they would have different effects. We need to compare to know
the ones that we should market and the ones we should not market so that our
people can get the best.
How long did the research that earned you the award take?
I have been doing research since I graduated in Ife; for good 30 years. I thank
God that I made up my mind to do quality research and also publish in quality
outlets. When you pick my work and publication, you will find out that they are
real quality works published in quality outlets. People are always concerned
about the effects of drugs in body; we are looking at effects of the body on
the drugs knowing that all of us are different. They looked at all that I had
done and I had to choose 10 of all my best papers.
What were the challenges on your way in the course of the research?
There were many challenges. One was that I was not fortunate to get a grant at
the beginning of my research. First and foremost, I didn’t want to do my
postgraduate in Nigeria, so I spent time looking for opportunity to travel out
to do my postgraduate. My aim in life was to have my PhD and be a professor at
35. But none of those dreams came to pass. I had a lot of challenges doing my
postgraduate. When I joined UI, there were a lot of troubles but I didn’t give
Can you mention some of the challenges specifically?
When you are working in Africa or in Nigeria, you don’t have all the resources
like equipment, reagents, and opportunities. So, what could have taken you
three months to do you will do in one year. I remember, to develop just a
method for my PhD took me one year. When I was in Germany, after I had my PhD,
I did a similar thing in three months. I had a PhD student that struggled for
three years just to develop a method. She was fortunate to go to a laboratory
that I went to in Germany to complete all her data analysis. You need money to
do research; I used all I earned to do my Masters and PhD.
What must be done to change this sequence?
It is the availability of funds. You go to the United States, Britain, research
funds are mainly from the government and they don’t ever stop. Very soon now,
you hear of cure for coronavirus because they pump in money. We don’t have
lesser brains than those people. Government has started with TETfund to be able
to support research. But, going beyond that, you really need to equip the
universities with resources for research. What can we pinpoint that TETfund had
been able to solve? They may also identify some centres of excellence and make
sure there are exchange programmes. You need money to do research both for graduates
and undergraduates. It is not enough to buy equipment but you need a lot of
money to maintain it. You don’t switch off some equipment abroad but if you
don’t switch them off here they could be damaged by power surge. And, before
you get the parts, it may take six months.
Our research institutes come out with recommendations and findings that gather
dust. What must be done to feel the impacts of these centres?
There was a programme that I attended in Ghana in 2019 on evidence
implementation-based research. It was on how can we bring policy makers into
what we do so that right from the beginning they can buy into it so that at the
end of the day they are able to implement. You will see that a lot of what we
do depends on policy makers. Once governance changes all the things crumble. We
need to bring government to continuity. The other thing is getting industries
to buy the things. If they don’t buy it, there will be a problem because it
costs about $2.5bn for a drug to be on the table. And it takes about 15 years
and the questions are, are we patient and can we invest? China, Japan and other economies of the world have domesticated science. Why
does this seem impossible in Nigeria? We need to take drastic decisions and be flexible in terms of education. In
Nigeria, education is highly regulated. While that is good, I think there must
be variations. These countries that you talked about took very painful
decisions, suffered for a while and then learn from it. They shut down
importation. If you want Nigerians to make drugs today, shut down importation.
Federal Government indicated its readiness to cut down the budget because oil
price slumped in the world market. Isn’t this worrisome?
It is by refining that we have hope. We cannot compete presently because the
cost of getting the crude to the market is very high. So, we should encourage
the establishment of refineries in Nigeria. Everything that is happening should
be teaching us lessons. Why should we be importing refined oil?