Since the outbreak of monkeypox started earlier this year, the testing capacity in Nigeria has remained limited, and this could be attributed to unavailability of diagnostic kits.
To increase the chances of making diagnosis of monkeypox easy, accessible and affordable in Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) facilities in Nigeria, researchers at the Nigerian Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) Yaba, Lagos have developed and unveiled a new monkeypox viral DNA detection kit.
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. RNA, abbreviation of ribonucleic acid, complex compound of high molecular weight that functions in cellular protein synthesis and replaces DNA as a carrier of genetic codes in some viruses.
The Minister of State for Health, Joseph Ekumankama, during his working visit to the research institute over the weekend unveiled the kit and commissioned two facilities: a Clinical Trial Centre and Emerging Virus Disease Laboratory.
Ekumankama said: “The clinical trial coordinating centre is to be used to carry out assessment of not only drugs and vaccines from elsewhere but also our home grown products; Clinical trials are the primary ways that researchers find out if a new treatment, like a new drug or diet or medical device is safe and effective in people and often used to learn if a new treatment is more effective and/or has less harmful side effects than the standard treatment while the Emerging Virus Disease Laboratory was built to prepare Nigeria for future disease outbreak stemming out of our experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic waves that is for diseases of the future that may occur newly or reemerge but are expanding in incidence and geographic areas, they may also be diseases that are currently unknown.”
A molecular biologist at NIMR, Dr. Joseph Shaibu shared his views as a member of the team that developed the monkeypox kit. He said the kit was developed with all the optimisation and validation processes done locally. He also added that the idea behind all these was to minimize the duration of time it takes to get the kits needed especially when there are outbreaks and to also make it more affordable.
“I was sent the cost for 96 monkeypox test at N980,000 last week; hardly will you see many people that can afford that in Nigeria. So, what we are trying to do is to produce kits that bridges the gap and these kits are highly effective with 95 percent sensitivity with 100 percent specificity and after analyzing everything, it could be up to 60 to 70 percent cheaper than what we have in circulation.
“We have intentions of making kits for most of these viruses so that Nigerian scientists can have our kits to do their work and also easy access to other diagnoses aside from malaria and typhoid for people in rural areas” he said.
Shaibu also explained why many PCR labs in the country do not test for monkeypox presently. He said: “Currently there are many PCR labs in the country but it is only NCDC that has been testing for monkeypox because of unavailability of the test kits and approval from NCDC but by the time these kits are available, I know that most of these labs will come up and begin to do it too.”
The Director General and CEO, NIMR, Prof. Babatunde Lawal Salako, said the advent of COVID-19 has allowed the introduction of open real-time PCR equipment in many centres around the country and now the issue of monkeypox has allowed for the opportunity to deploy their proposed solutions to solving the challenges of access of case detection of monkeypox in other to support the reduction in test costs by providing very affordable and profitable kit to testing centres.
Salako appealed to the minister for help as the institute is facing a critical challenge in the area of staff replacement or recruitment where almost on a monthly basis one person resigns, especially among researchers, yet they do not have opportunity to replace them.
He added that this is already affecting the capacity of the institute to deliver on its mandate and as such, is not good for the institution.
“I therefore, appeal to you once again, Honorable Minister, to use your good and very powerful office to ensure that NIMR is able to at least replace the retired staff and others who have resigned within a short period if the institute must survive to effectively perform its function in the next one year. It is the high quality of our staff’s skills that led to the development of a number of diagnostic kits in the last two years, including COVID-19, Yellow Fever, Lassa Fever, RNA Extraction kit, DNA Extraction kit and currently the monkeypox kit” he said.
The DG tasked the minister to ensure that the one percent of basic Health Care Provision Fund proposed by the Federal Ministry of Health to be spent on Health research is affirmed at the senate deliberation. “We are reliably informed that this has been passed by the House of Representative and awaiting concurrence from the Senate. This will be one way health research can be funded without going cap in hands all the time. We need funding to be able to conduct top notch and cutting edge research capable of addressing our health challenges,” he said.
Ekumankama lauded NIMR for the exceptional works they have been doing to make sure that Nigeria tackles her challenges when it comes to diseases and virus outbreaks. He said: “The Institute’s mandate which is to conduct Research into diseases of Public Health importance in the country is so critical to the wellbeing of Nigerians as research is the bedrock of National development. It therefore, gratifying to note the laudable exploits which NIMR has demonstrated in the fulfillment of its mandate especially in the areas of HIV/AIDS, Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD), Tuberculosis and lately the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Addressing the issue of NIMR being short staffed, the minister said that the Nigerian government can not stop Nigerians from leaving the country for better pay but adopt a more systematic approach by training as many more people as we can to always replace those who leave the country. “The truth is when someone leaves, we have a lost a good hand but we also have to celebrate that the impact of what they are doing is affecting our economy positively for instance last year about 26 billion dollars came into Nigeria through diaspora funding so you can imagine the impact of 26 billion dollars into the Nigerian economy. We may see it as a challenge on one part but economically it is a benefit for the country even though such funds don’t come directly into the government purse, it gets down to everyone.”
Ekumankama also talked about how the government is trying to salvage the problem of brain drain through brain gain since there are so many Nigerians who are retiring and life abroad when you are old is not palatable. “You want a place where you can have time with your cousins, siblings, children, grandchildren, your community so as not to be kept in a retirement home where you are kept with a few sets of people. So many of them desire to come home and we are trying to see how we can encourage them more to come back home so that when they are working we can pay them and benefit from those skills and training we need in Nigeria” he said.
Ekumankama finally said that the government and people of Nigeria will continue to look up to institutions like NIMR to drive the research and development in medicine and reposition the country to promptly respond to emerging disease outbreaks, therefore it is absolutely necessary if Nigeria is to catch up with the rest of the world, especially, in the area of vaccine development in view of the numerous diseases ravaging our communities such as Lassa Fever, Yellow Fever, COVID-19 and lately monkeypox.