In response to the COVID-19 crisis and the struggle that African countries are having with sourcing a good number of testing kits, Cellulant has partnered with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and a consortium of ministries to enable local production of cheap testing kits for coronavirus.
In a groundbreaking achievement, the validation and approval of an optimised Ribonucleic Acid-based COVID19 test kit to enable expansion of Africa’s capability to increase the SARS-CoV-2 testing by at least 50 times at a 500% reduced cost of detection. The optimised kit is based on a RNA extraction kit called RNASwift developed by a Nigerian, Dr Alison Nwokeoji who is an academic researcher at the University of Sheffield.
The country’s COVID-19 reality up until Thursday May 22nd, when the validation exercise took place at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in Abuja had been aggravated by poor testing regimes occasioned by the unavailability of affordable testing kits. The UK with a population four times less than Nigeria performs over 40,000 tests per day, while Nigeria continued to record unimpressive figures pegged at about 700 per day.
While the Presidency enforced lockdowns in affected states across the country to curb the spread of the virus, operators in key sectors, such as agriculture, health and other essential service providers where exempted from the restriction order.
A corollary to the foregoing became the urgent need to expand Africa, and indeed Nigeria’s testing capability through the development of an affordable and sustainable PCR technology platform and consequent deployment of the technology not only to deal with the current pandemic but also to accost future outbreaks within the region.
It was against this backdrop that the Honourable Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Alhaji Muhammad Sabo Nanono, taking cognizance of the risk that agricultural stakeholders in particular posed to the nation if left untested and allowed to traverse the country, struck an inter-ministerial partnership with the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and the Federal Ministry of Health to develop an indigenous test kit effort.
According to the Technical Adviser to the Honourable Minister on Knowledge Management and Communications, Richard-Mark Mbaram Esq, the Minister’s effort also sought to incorporate private sector players into the intervention process, culminating into Cellulant Nigeria and Celplas stepping up to support the effort. “This support enabled the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) to collaborate with a Nigerian Scientist, Dr. Alison Nwokeoji to commence scientific evaluation of possibilities of producing cheaper, ready to use test kits for Nigeria. The African Development Bank (AfDB) stepped in to support it, as did the Nigerian Center for Disease Control”, he said.
The Director General of NABDA, Prof. Alex Akpa, in his report following the validation exercise was quoted as saying, “This is not just a Test Nigeria Project but a Test Africa Project in the making.
Akpa added, “I want to thank the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) for its support and also commend the NCDC Director General, Dr. Chike Ihekweazu for his overwhelming support in this exercise”.
The DG also pointed out that the RNA extraction kit was of high purity and very good quantity, highly comparable with the regular commercial kits.
In the same vein, Director, Medical Biotechnology Department of NABDA, Dr Bartholomew Ibeh, noted that the RNASwift extraction kit was safe and free from the toxic phenol chloroform used in most commercial kits.
“The kit has higher performance and testing capacity than the commercial RNA extraction kits by at least 50 times while reducing the cost of detection by 500%”, he said.
On affordability, Ibeh noted that “it is inexpensive as the chemicals needed to make reagents are comparatively the cheapest and can be sourced locally”.
He added that the kit has testing capacity of 20,000 persons per day with a manual machine and 50,000 per day, with an automated one”.
Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) and Scientist at NABDA, Dr. Rose Gidado, praised participating partners in the project.
Gidado said, “Our appreciation goes to the MD Cellulant Nigeria Ltd, Pharmacist Bolaji Akinboro and Mr. Prakash Hathiramani of Celplas who supported the validation exercise with funds. The RNASwift method is now in the public domain and can be adopted by any country to develop their own kits free of charge”.
NCDC’s Chief Molecular Bio-Engineer, Dr Nnaemeka Ndodo on his part was quoted as saying, “the validation of an optimised RNA extraction kit based on the RNASwift method developed by a Nigerian, and validated by Nigerians in Nigeria represent a ‘watershed’ in our quest to proffer Nigerian solution to the Covid19 scourge.
Ndodo added, “As the developed world prioritizes their region in critical supply, the world is running short of vital reagents for Covid19 testing such as RNA extraction. The validation of this RNA extraction kit will therefore, permanently ensure supply of this vital kit for rapid testing.
“It is also heartwarming that the effort cuts across three Ministries- Agric, Health and Science and Tech, as well as several government agencies such as NABDA, NCDC and NIMR with the full support of AfDB and the Agro-Allied Industry”.
Indeed, this latest effort brings a new positive dimension to the war against the COVID19 Pandemic in Nigeria. Nigeria and other African countries can now manage the situation in a more pragmatic way and actions aimed at flattening the curve do not necessarily have to be so radically disruptive of everyday life.