Antiviral Drug for COVID-19 Excites Ihekweazu, NCDC DG

Advises review of anti-quarantine law be put on hold

The Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, Chikwe Ihekweazu, is excited about the prospect of an antiviral drug, Remdesivir, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA, United States of America for the treatment of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19 which has been ravaging the world since last year. He was however not as enthusiastic about the on-going review of the anti-quarantine law being processed by the House of Representatives, declaring that it was one exercise that could wait.

 Ihekweazu, who was guest on Channels Television programme, Politics Today on Sunday night, described the antiviral drug as “victory for science”. The epidemiologist and public health physician who has been leading the battle against COVID-19, said “Over the last few days, we’ve gotten emerging evidence for the first drug that has shown evidence of efficacy. It’s a drug called Remdesivir that came to prominence over trials to use it for the Ebola virus but it didn’t really work. So, those trials did not show that it worked for Ebola. But this drug remained in our arsenal; we now tried it in a clinical trial and we’ve seen that it thus produce some benefits to people”.

Ihekweazu disclosed how in the beginning of this pandemic, he had resisted a lot of pressure piled on not just the NCDC, but also on state governments across the country to buy and invest in medications which he would not name, “but on many types of pills, both conventional, medical, and everything else. And I stood firm, and said listen, we have to wait for the science to come through for us for the clinical trials to evolve because what we don’t want to do is give people something; not only are we not sure it works, it could actually cause harm”.

The NCDC boss explained that “Many of these drugs that we take have side effects. And if we don’t know that the benefits outweigh the side effects, then as a doctor, I am causing more harm to my patient. And one vow as a doctor that we take as most sacrosanct is to cause no harm”. The visibly elated Ihekweazu said “So, I’m actually happy that finally, some clinical trial and evidence has emerged about the new drug. What we now need to do is gain access to this drug. It’s a difficult process at the moment, but we’ve started those conversations to enable access to Nigerians”. He said the NCDC would interface with NAFDAC to speed up the regulatory process so that the drug could be made accessible and available to Nigerians.

“So, it’s the first step, and that is how science works. Sometimes, it’s slower than we want it to be or we will like it to be; that’s really what we have to do. It’s the same for vaccines, the same for drugs; and the same for all the other measures that we need to now put in place to make sure that they work”, Ihekweazu said.

He said while the NCDC was “very comfortable” with the Act establishing the body, what is before the National Assembly is a new infectious disease bill which he said his agency was not privy to. “My understanding is that it was introduced by the House of Representatives. I can understand where it is coming from. I think many people are frustrated with the landscape of infectious disease and our ability to institute the measures that we need to control the spread of infectious diseases. But we haven’t had the opportunity yet to review the Bill. We weren’t part of the consultation process in bringing up the bill. I saw it for the first time two days ago. So, my reaction is that yes, I do think there is a need to consider our public health law altogether. The Quarantine Act is from pre-independence time; so, there is definitely a need to consider a new public health law and anew legal landscape for public health. But I do think, to be honest, my personal view is that the middle of a crisis is not the best time to do this”.

He advised that “We need to get out of this, consult widely, and then come up with decisions that we can all really adhere to both at the Federal and state levels”. Noting that public health is very broad with the federal government formulating the policies, which lie on the state and local governments to implement. “So, there need to be wide consultations on where the powers lie. I think that is better done after the crisis. And really, that will be my reaction whenever I’m asked. But for now, let’s hold onto it. It is important to do, but now is not the right time to review the law while we are still in the middle of a war”, Ihekweazu insisted.

Remdesivir, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA, Photo
Remdesivir, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA,
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