Nigerian researchers seek funding to move Africa-centric COVID-19 vaccine to human trials

By Abdullahi Tsanni

October 30, 2020

Though researchers in Nigeria have developed a DNA-based vaccine against COVID-19 specifically for Africa, they are struggling to find funding to take it to human trials.

The vaccine was developed using DIOSynVax technology and targets strains of the novel coronavirus circulating on the African continent.

Animal trials showed a high-level of protection (90 percent) in the pre-clinical evaluation, according to Christian Happi, a Harvard-trained geneticist and director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) at Redeemer’s University in Ede in southwestern Nigeria, the first lab in Africa to sequence the coronavirus genome.

“That gave us the impetus and enthusiasm to start preparing for phase 1 clinical trials in humans, but we are stuck because we do not have funding and resources,” Happi said.

It’s crucial to develop a vaccine intended for Africa, Happi said. Vaccines previously developed in the Global North, such as those for malaria, have fallen short because they were created without fully considering Africans’ genetic diversity and the pathogens circulating on the continent.

Happi said there are currently 10 different lineages of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in Nigeria alone, and these will keep changing and evolve into new strains. Global vaccine developers are working on lineages A and B, but a lineage C has already been found in South Africa, which means that vaccines developed for A and B might not be effective on C. That’s why it’s essential to understand the situation on the ground before beginning to design a vaccine, Happi said, and consider the lineages, as well as the immune responses of those who will be administered the vaccine.

“We understand that genetically Africans are different from people in the Global North,” he explained. “As such, if you want to design a vaccine for Africans primarily you need to start from Africa and understand how they are responding. And that’s one of the reasons why vaccines developed in the West fall short.”

Happi is trying to raise money through grants and private sector partnerships to move forward with his research. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for African governments to learn lessons and begin to invest heavily in public health research.

“If they [African governments] invest in research and vaccine development, it will change the narratives about Africa and show that the continent’s scientists can contribute to knowledge in vaccines,” Happi said. “It’s unfortunate that we do not know how to invest in the vaccine space, so we are looking for funders and investors. For us, this is a big deal because we can start seeing our contributions in the vaccine space.”

Africa lags in global COVID-19 vaccine development

Some 198 COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of development by companies, research teams and universities around the world, according to the World Health Organization’s draft landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines. But African countries remain at the end of the queue in this global quest to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, said Dr. Richard Mihigo, program manager for Immunization and Vaccines Development (IVD) program at the WHO’s regional office in Africa.

“Our data show that more than 300 candidate vaccines are currently at different stages of development and out of those, close to 40 candidate vaccines have reached clinical trials with 10 vaccines in the last stage of the clinical trials,” he said. “But the sad reality is that most of these vaccines are developed in the Global North and we do not have [any vaccine developed] in Africa.”

Vaccine development is a massive undertaking, Mihigo added, and Africa has been lagging behind for many reasons, principally lack of infrastructure, inadequate government and private sector investment and limited vaccine manufacturing capacity.

Dr. John Nkengasong, director general of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) — a specialized technical institution administered by the African Union —  warned that “unless we act now, Africa is at risk of being left behind in the global vaccine [initiative],” according to a recent report by Devex on a two-day virtual conference on Africa’s leadership on COVID-19 vaccine development and access. Consequently, the Africa CDC has also called on donors and partners to fund the continent’s efforts to secure the necessary vaccine supply.

Funding remains insufficient

As part of its policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in May 2020 introduced the Healthcare Sector Research and Development Intervention Scheme (HSRDIS).  It aims to strengthen Nigeria’s public healthcare system with innovative financing of research and development (R&D) in new and improved drugs, vaccines and diagnostics of infectious diseases. The CBN notes that vaccines undergoing clinical testing or trials are eligible for consideration under the scheme, though they can only access up to N500 million naira (US$1.3 million) in R&D grants.

Experts say that while the initiative is commendable, the amount offered is insignificant when compared to the estimated US$200 million to US$500 million it costs to move a vaccine from research to product registration.

Prof. Sani Ibrahim, a biochemist and director of Research and Innovation at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria-Nigeria, agrees that the amount allocated for vaccine development is grossly inadequate. But he said an even more critical factor limiting vaccine research in Nigeria is the lack of infrastructure, particularly facilities for human stages of clinical trials and the accompanying expertise. Ibrahim encouraged Nigeria to take part in ongoing clinical trials to develop cohorts and expertise and discover whether Africans can benefit from the vaccines under development.

Happi’s team has been collaborating with researchers at the University of Cambridge and its spin-out DIOSynVax technology to develop the Africa-specific SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Happi previously collaborated with the university to develop a trivalent DNA vaccine against Ebola, Lassa fever and monkeypox, using the genomic sequences of the viruses.

When COVID-19 hit, Happi’s team sequenced the genome of the strains of coronavirus circulating in Nigeria and used bioinformatics and machine learning (ML) tools to map out epitopes — regions of proteins that elicit cellular immune responses to protect the body against diseases — based on the generated sequences of SARS-CoV-2 in Nigeria.

The advanced research conducted by Happi’s lab demonstrates that developing a COVID-19 vaccine in Africa “is not something impossible,” Mihigo said. “It’s something Nigeria and many other African countries can do, and it has been done in the past. We have to applaud and support African vaccine initiatives like Nigeria’s.”

Image: Vaccine researcher Christian Happi in his lab in Nigeria.