By Moses Emorinken, Abuja, Augustine Okezie, Katsina, Linus Oota, Lafia & PETERS ,Abuja

President Muhammadu Buhari has urged Nigerian universities and scientists to intensify research efforts to develop vaccines that can tackle the COVID-19 and its variants, which are  afflicting the world.

His call is coming on the heels of the new more contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has triggered global alert as more cases were recorded in Netherland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong, Denmark, Australia, other European countries, just days after it was identified in South Africa.

The new variants has left governments around the world like the United Kingdom (UK), United States (U.S.), Israeli, Brazil, Indonesia, among others, scrambling to stop the spread.

President Buhari, who was represented by the Minister of State for Education, Mr. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba at the fifth and sixth combined convocation ceremony of the Federal University Dutsin-Ma (FUDMA), Katsina State, said universities were supposed to be centres for scientific and technological discoveries, inventions, values and character formation as well as drivers of societal growth.

He said: “The development of the vaccine would fortify Nigerians’ immune system against the virus. My administration remained committed to tackling the challenges of sustainable funding for research, capacity building and employment creation.

“You all know that in the year 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began its devastating effect on the education sub-sectors, leading to the disruption of universities’ academic activities.

“I, therefore, urge and encourage the universities to intensify their research to come up with a more potent vaccine to fortify our immune system against this dreaded virus.

The President also tasked the universities to explore available opportunities, including research collaboration with allied industries and development partners to create other sources of revenue generation, adding that such drive would support his economic diversification drive.

Omicron variant not in Nigeria, says NCDC

But, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) yesterday stated that the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is not in the country.

It stated that, in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Health, it is monitoring emerging evidence on the new variant and its implication to inform the country’s response to the pandemic.

Urging Nigerians to ensure strict adherence to the proven public health and social measures in place, the NCDC appealed to business owners, religious leaders and people in authority to take responsibility by ensuring people in their premises wear masks and adhere to physical distancing.

A statement by the NCDC reads: “The Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) and Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) are aware of reports of a new COVID-19 variant — the B.1.1.529 lineage. This SARS-CoV-2 variant has now been designated a variant of concern (VOC) and named; Omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as advised by the independent Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).

“While this variant has so far NOT been detected in Nigeria, a number of cases have now been reported in the UK, Israel, Botswana, Hong-Kong, Germany, Belgium, Italy and counting. However, no deaths have been attributed to this new variant yet. A total of 126 genomes of this variant have been detected globally and published on GISAID, (GISAID is a global mechanism for sharing sequencing data).

“Given the high number of mutations present in this Omicron variant and the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases observed in South Africa, this virus is considered highly transmissible and may also present an increased risk of reinfection compared to other VOCs.

“However, the fears about its ability to evade protective immune responses and/or its being vaccine resistant are only theoretical so far. This virus can still be detected with existing Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests. The WHO and researchers across the world are working at speed to gain understanding of the likely impact of this variant on the severity of COVID-19 and on the potency of existing vaccines and therapeutics.

“The NCDC continues to ensure daily review of surveillance data and uses this to inform public health decision making. Therefore, we urge all States to ensure that sample collection and testing are accessible, so that travellers, people with symptoms or who have been exposed to COVID-19 cases get tested promptly.”

NMA cautions Fed Govt on border monitoring, closure

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) yesterday urged the Federal Government to apply caution in the closure of its borders to inbound passengers from South Africa, even as the new COVID-19 variant called Omicron spreads across the globe.

The NMA advised that while the government studies the trends and epidemiological characterisation of the variant before taking a decision on border closure, it needs to also increase disease surveillance, ramp up testing – especially at the airports, and ensure strict adherence to non-pharmaceutical protocols of hand washing and use of hand sanitisers, wearing of face masks and social distancing.

Speaking with our correspondent yesterday, the NMA President, Prof Innocent Ujah, also stressed that passengers from countries in Southern Africa should be compulsorily isolated, quarantined and examined for possible infection.

He explained that the country is not ready and prepared for the new variant, hence, the need to be extra-cautious.

He said: “We had the Delta variant before. I think that the mutation will continue because at the moment we don’t even know the biology of coronavirus completely. However, there is better information now than before. All we need to do is to see how we can protect ourselves.

“We have to ensure that we follow the non-pharmaceutical protocols – hand washing, wearing facemask, and social distancing. As you know social distancing has failed. All we will do is to ensure that we use the facemask and hand washing and sanitisers at every turn.

“We need to increase surveillance at the airport, particularly of those coming from the Southern Africa countries at the moment. They should be quarantined first for seven days. We must continue to up our game and improve our surveillance and testing. I know that in the United Kingdom (UK), before you leave, you must do a PCR test within 48 to 72 hours before you enter any plane. You also need to have the result which you will show at the airport.

“At the same time, the Government of Nigeria insists that you must pay for it, come to Nigeria and choose the laboratory where you can do your test.

“What we need to do is implementation and compliance. Even though we don’t need too many people to infect others, but the volume of traffic from South Africa to Nigeria in my opinion is not so much as to justify the closure of the borders.

“However, we need to study the trend more. We can also monitor, and if the situation becomes necessary, then Nigeria should shut its airport to Southern African countries.

“If it becomes necessary, and we get the epidemiological characterisation of this variant, of course, we would advise the government to shut its borders.

“The problem is we are not even ready if it comes. If Europe and America that are ready are on their knees for COVID-19, then we have to be extra-cautious. Some Nigerians don’t even believe that there is COVID-19. You find a situation where you are doing so much and others are sabotaging the efforts of the government. However, we have to remain focused.

“If it becomes necessary, the government should shut the airport to those people from Southern African countries because we need to protect our people.”

Expert: PSC should rethink face mask policy

A public health expert, Dr. Gabriel Adakole, has called on the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on COVID-19 to look into the possibility of returning the requirement of wearing facemask/shields following the threats from the COVID-19 Omicron variant.Adakole made the call in an interview with News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) yesterday in Abuja.

He added that the PSC should tighten the country’s rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals across all airports.

He noted that the committee should return any protections that the country would need in preventing further surge.

“PSC needs to continue comprehensive and tailored public health and social measures to prevent transmission. The earlier the protective measures are implemented, the less restrictive they would need to be in order to be effective.

“The more COVID-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus will have to change and mutate, and the pandemic will last longer,” he added.

He thankfully expressed that no Omicron variant case, which is believed to be contagious, has been reported in the country so far.

According to Adakole, “because of fears that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped.

“As you aware, many countries have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from South Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant delta variant, so what is Nigeria waiting for?”

The expert said as the COVID-19 crisis continues and Nigerians need to take the preventive measures seriously, building forward better from the pandemic means all Nigerians must commit to end the Pandemic.

Meanwhile, he called on the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to scale up surveillance, strengthen public health and social measures.

“The NCDC must enhance surveillance and sequencing while assessing the risk of importation through international travel based on updated information on circulating variants and response capacities, and take measures accordingly.

“Though our COVID-19 cases have been declining, the surge in cases elsewhere in the world and confirmation of a new variant of concern is a reminder of the persisting risk and the need for us to continue to do our best to protect against the virus and prevent its spread. At no cost should we let our guards down,” he explained.

He also called on the PSC to enhance vaccination coverage, in view of the surge in COVID-19 cases globally, and detection of a new variant of concern, Omicron.

Adakole reminded Nigerians that they must not forget that the pandemic is far from being over.

NPHCDA boss: six million Nigerians vaccinated

Executive Director, National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA) Dr. Faisal Shuaibu at the weekend said 6,242,224 Nigerians have received the first dose of COVID-19.

He explained further that 3,487,298 Nigerians have received their second dose and are fully vaccinated.

Shauibu spoke in Lafia during the flag off of the COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign in Nasarawa State.

“As at November 26, 2021, the total number of eligible people, who have received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria, is 6,242,224. A total number of 3,487,298 have received their second dose and are fully vaccinated.

“Let us all continue to observe our non-pharmaceutical measures against COVID-19 as we work together towards achieving herd immunity. Six million Nigerians have safely received the COVID-19 vaccines. Six million Nigerians cannot be wrong, Get your jab today,” he said

He said Nigerian is still far from reaching its target of vaccinating almost 112 million of its eligible population.

The NPHCDA boss called on Nasarawa residents who are 18 years and above to come out en mass to receive the COVID-19 vaccines to protect themselves, loved ones and communities against the severe effects of the disease.

He also added that about 15 million persons in Nasarawa State are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination, but only about 8.1 per cent of eligible Nasarawa residents are vaccinated.

According to him, the mass vaccination campaign is a carefully designed service delivery strategy that aims to rapidly increase the number of fully vaccinated eligible people and fast-track the country’s economic social recovery.

Also speaking, Nasarawa State Governor, Abdullahi Sule, said the state under his leadership is committed to ensure that every eligible residents of Nasarawa is fully vaccinated.

‘Nigerians may soon start looking for vaccine to buy’

The Emir of Dutse, Nuhu Muhammad Sanusi, has warned that Nigerians may soon start looking for COVID-19 vaccine with money and would not get it.

The emir stated this at the official inauguration of mass COVID-19 vacation exercise in Kiyawa Local Government, Jigawa State.

The emir, who was represented by the emirate’s senior councillor, Basiru Muhammad Sanusi (Galadima of Dutse), urged Nigerians to troop out in en masse and avail themselves for the vaccine.

“At this juncture, I want to use this opportunity to inform our citizens that the vaccine is safe and free. Let everyone comes out and receive the jab.

“Whatever the government brought is for the betterment of its citizens. President Muhammad Buhari, his family and all his cabinet members have already received their own. Governors, families and their cabinets as well as traditional rulers and their council members have been vaccinated,” he said.

He, however, urged citizens to complement government and development partners’ efforts to prevent the spread of the virus by availing themselves to be vaccinated.

The emir, therefore, directed his district heads and religious leaders to champion COVID-19 vaccination exercise to achieve the set target.

He noted that failure to do so now, those resisting might use their money to look for the vaccine.