COVID-19 innovations by tertiary institutions


The COVID-19 pandemic has put tertiary institutions on their toes to come up with solutions to check the spread of the virus in Nigeria. KOFOWOROLA BELO-OSAGIE reports on these efforts and the need for funding to make them a reality.

As the world grapples with the debilitating health effects of the COVID-19, the race to stop the pandemic in its track is on. However, the great global need for medical supplies leading to severe shortages has forced countries to look inwards to solve their problems.

Tertiary institutions and research institutes are some of the organizations being looked up to find solutions to the problems of lack of face masks, personal protective equipment for health workers and ventilators, among others. The need to stop the spread of the highly-contagious virus is highlighting the importance of the town-gown relationship between tertiary institutions and the societies they serve. Everywhere, tertiary institutions are being looked upon to step up their research and community development roles.

Institutions have been reporting various initiatives – from the production of hand sanitizers, ventilators, and face masks to sensitization about COVID-19 and distribution of information and education materials.

Innovation from Nigeria

Sequencing of the first genome of SARS-CoV-2 in Africa

Nigeria scored a highpoint by being the first country in Africa to produce the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2. The feat was achieved less than one week after the country recorded its index COVID-19 case on February 27.

The work was a collaboration among four institutions – the Redeemer’s University, Ede, Nigeria (RUN), which hosts World Bank-sponsored Africa Centre of Excellence for the Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), and the College of Medicine, University of Lagos/ Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR).

The sequencing, which studies the DNA of the virus, helps contribute to the world’s understanding of the virus and is important for vaccine development.

NCDC Communication Officer, Chukwuemeka Oguanuo, said genomic sequencing was one of the first steps needed to understand the virus.

“When you sequence a gene, it means you want to understand the activities of the DNA of a virus,” he said when the feat was achieved.

The feat won Nigeria praise from the World Health Organisation and the scientific community worldwide.

WHO Chief Tedros Ghebreyesusu said of the feat: “Thank you @mcdcgOV and the Government of Nigeria for the swift and transparent way you have shared the COVID-19 sequence from the country’s first case. This is a true act of solidarity and an important step in stopping the coronavirus from spreading further.”

Ventilators

The ventilator is the most coveted piece of equipment in fighting the coronavirus. It is needed when the conditions of infected persons deteriorate to the point that they need assistance breathing because their lungs have collapsed.

Several institutions have come up with ventilators. While the Rector of the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, Olusegun Aluko, said the institution had invented one using locally-sourced materials that cost less than N1 million; a 200-Level Mechanical Engineering student of the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Usman Dalhatu, has also produced a manual ventilator. Both the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro and Dalhatu are seeking funding support to mass-produce.

Other institutions like the First Technical University (TECH-U), Ibadan, and Bayero University, Kano have also rolled out plans to produce ventilators.

TECH-U Vice-Chancellor Prof. Ayobami Salami said work was in progress towards producing ventilators.

“Right now, First Technical University research team is also working towards the production of ventilators. The reason is that we believe that more than ever before, universities and other higher institutions in Nigeria must be practically and innovatively relevant to the advancement of society,” he said.

At BUK, the Dean of Faculty of Engineering, Prof. Salisu Dan’Azumi, said the institution was working on a ventilator that it hopes to produce for use by isolation centers in Kano.

To this end, it has set up a committee chaired by Prof. Abdussamad U. Jibia of the Mechatronics Engineering Department to present a design and construction of a prototype ventilator.

Sanitizers/ face masks/others

Many institutions, including the University of Benin, Iree Polytechnic, and the Federal University of Technology Owerri (FUTO) among others have begun producing sanitizers.

COVID-19 innovations

The TECH-U, in addition to its ventilator project, has also produced washable face masks and is working with the Oyo State Government on data management and contact tracing.

Speaking on the initiatives, Ayobami, said: “Yes, we are involved in research towards finding a solution to the pandemic. First, the university is working with the Oyo State Government through the State Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) on contact tracing, data analysis, and data management on suspected cases.

“The First Technical University has produced washable face masks that it has donated to the Oyo State Government, through the Ministry of Health, for distribution as deemed fit. We decided to produce washable masks so that they can be reused and save cost on the part of the populace because the masks are also available for sale at a reduced rate.”

At FUTO, Head of the Chemistry Department, Prof. Cynthia E. Ogukwe said the sanitizer produced by her department contains 75% alcohol – which is more than the 60 percent recommended by the WHO.

Vice-Chancellor of the University, Prof. Francis Eze said the sanitize would be donated to the Imo State government to check the pandemic. He added that the department would be supported to scale up production.

Research that may not make it due to funding

Many more innovations are in the pipeline but may not see the light of day without funding.

At the Federal University Oye Ekiti (FUOYE), the Dean of Science, Prof. Laide Lawal said the university needed the grant to work on enhancing Nigeria’s testing capability.

“We are working actively on this. We submitted a proposal for a fast grant on clinical characteristics, viral genome characterization, codon usage, and drug development for SARS-CoV-2 cases in Southwestern Nigeria. We are still looking for other opportunities for funding. The main constraint here is that we do not have a functioning PCR machine and also we need to have a 24-hour power supply. We also need COVID-19 extraction and detection kits, protective clothing (wears, gloves, marks). If we can get these, then we are capable of being a viable center for the detection of the Virus.”

A Professor of Medical Virology at the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), Olatunji Kolawole, said his research team had three viable proposals ready for research on various aspects of COVID-19 but needed to be funding.

He told The Nation that his team of researchers had prepared proposals for the development of vaccines, molecular epidemiology surveillance for COVID-19 as well as a prototype for detection of COVID-19 and seeks funding to support the research.

“Proposals have been written by me and some of my research team. One is on the development of a vaccine; another has to do with molecular epidemiology surveillance for COVID-19 and the third has to do with developing a prototype for case detection. The prototype will hopefully be ready by next week for a pre-test. Once it is ready and fine, we will be seeking for funds,” he said.

To develop the prototype for case detection, Kolawole who is the Director, Institute of Molecular Science and Biotechnology at the university, said his team had to use personal funds.

“I have used my personal funds, and members of my team have also contributed personal funds to develop the prototype. This is the bane of research in Nigeria. Ideas are there but when you don’t have funds you can do nothing.

“I want to use this channel to appeal to the government to give us money. There is capacity to do more if research is funded. ASUU is on strike and we have not received a salary for February or March but I have been working and spending my money on research. If I can do this it shows the passion and level of commitment I have for research,” he said.

Kolawole said he was the first to report the coronavirus in Nigeria in 2017. He added that if his work had been taken seriously, Nigeria would have been better prepared to combat COVID-19.

“I was the first to report Coronavius – OC229E/NL63 in Nigeria in 2017. It is a train of the coronavirus family – not COVID-19. If the Nigerian government had taken leaf at that time they would have put much in place before COVID-19 came. The research was funded with international partners in the U.S. with a grant from the National Science Foundation, but I was the one that did the local research,” he said.