*As critics query Nigeria’s illusive search for COVID-19 vaccines with over N200b lifeline
The perception that the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in Nigeria might have created millionaires who benefited from the scourge at the expense of the ordinary Nigerians may find meaning in the realisation that while Nigeria reportedly expended over N200 billion last year in the search of a vaccine for the pandemic, the country is still at the mercy of charities.
In fact, it took the intervention of COVAX facility and India’s resilient health sector to come to Nigeria’s rescue with a paltry 3.92 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines penultimate Tuesday, which is very inadequate for the country’s 200 million plus population.
The Guardian reliably gathered that this rather disappointing development is after more than N200 billion dedicated fund from the treasury had been disbursed to the Federal Ministry of Health and some pharmaceutical firms for the development and upgrade of laboratory trials and testing.
The Guardian investigation revealed that there is nothing tangible to show for such investments at the end of the day.
Further investigation showed that outside the Federal Ministry of Health’s N51.402 billion capital votes and N336.597 billion recurrent votes for fiscal year 2020, which was fully disbursed by the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, there was a dedicated N40 billion provision in the adjusted COVID-19 Budget intervention for vaccines development, managed by the Ministry from where several sums ranging from N2 billion and N10 billion to agencies in the Ministry for Biovaccines; upgrade of lab testing and lab trial solidarity.
During the year under review also, all the teaching hospital across the country were allocated the sum of N345.848 million each for the purpose of procurement of molecular laboratory equipment, with a cumulative amount of N17.984 billion.
Under the arrangement, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) reportedly got the sum of N2 billion for reagent and equipment for COVID-19 related laboratory and another N1.3 billion for supplement to pharmaceutical industry for raw materials not used.
Another chunk of the spending in the sector came from the N100 billion Pharmaceutical Intervention for the COVID-19 from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) meant, as part of proactive measures to cushion the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the economy.
The Guardian learnt from the CBN that N93 billion of the Fund has already been disbursed to beneficiaries, repotedly no serious positive impact has also not been felt yet in the private sector as envisioned by the CBN. The intervention was with a view to strengthening the sector’s capacity to meet potential increase in demand for healthcare products and services. Specifically, the scheme was to provide credit to indigenous pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare value chain players to build or expand capacity. The Scheme is expected to increase private and public investment in the healthcare sector, facilitate improvements in healthcare delivery and reduce medical tourism to enhance foreign exchange conservation.
Chairman, Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMG-MAN), Dr. Fidelis Ayebae, told The Guardian: “Every company that met the loan requirement got it. We are happy with the CBN for the initiative and the way it was implemented. Members that are yet to access it are working with the commercial banks with whom they have a relationship to close up documentation gaps before moving on to CBN. Overall it is success in intervention. Some of the impact can already be seen in the financial performance of the early recipients of the loans.”
But a consultant pharmacist and medical director, Merit Healthcare, Dr. Lolu Ojo, disagrees. Ojo told The Guardian: “If not for the fact that we know of some big companies that got the money, we would have called the ‘N100 billion intervention fund’ a ‘419’ scheme.
“Many companies have offer but no fund was released. We pestered the bank with release requests but they in turn blamed the CBN for the stalemate.
“The intervention fund is long on words and promises but ultra short on action and result delivery.”
President, Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), Dr. Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi, told The Guardian: “Federal government through the CBN had offered pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners low interest rate loans up to N100 billion from March 2020 as intervention to improve local manufacturing and increase their capacities to combat the ravaging COVID 19 pandemic and other related health challenges.
“Although there were laid down guidelines for obtaining the loan, we are not aware if interested and qualified doctor, hospitals/organisations were given the loan.
“No organisation or individual came to tell if they succeeded in pursuing the loan. More so, we are not aware if the guideline is a tight bottleneck that did or did not make the loan available or accessible. But certainly, the CBN will or should be able to give a data of those that were able to access the loan.”
But Acting Head, Corporate Affairs of the CBN, Mr. Osita Nwanisobi, disagrees. He said the Health Sector Intervention Facility (HSIF) was established to address health infrastructure decay in the country.
Nwanisobi said: “Over N85 billion has been disbursed to date covering 82 projects. N22.5 billion was disbursed to States for revamping of primary health care centres across the country.
“On monitoring, we are evaluating the utilisation and thus far there has not been any diversion.
“We need to understand that this is a health intervention and the health sector is regulated. What you may refer to absence of evidence of investment in the sector is because the beneficiaries are doing the right thing by going through the regulatory hurdles for each stage of utilisation. Soon the impact will be obvious. Besides, the CBN also carry out impact assessment of the facility.”
He said the HSIF has been used to finance the following: acquisition and installation of 16 magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Machines across the country; and acquisition and installation of 22 medical scanning machines by hospital across the country.
“These are verifiable and we confirm that they have been installed,” Nwanisobi said.
MEANWHILE, pharmacists under the aegis of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), last year, gave reasons why most of their members were yet to access the N100 billion COVID-19 intervention fund for the healthcare/pharmaceutical industry.
President, PSN, Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, had told journalists: “The PSN has noted with pleasure that some healthcare/pharmaceutical companies that applied for the special N100 billion CBN facility have been granted. Nevertheless, we are distressed that the majority of the applicants are yet to be successful.”
To address the situation, Ohuabunwa, therefore, asked for the expedition of the review and approval of many of the outstanding applications so that the overall impact on industrial capacity, capability and output will be significantly enhanced in line with the noble objectives of the facility, especially as COVID-19 pandemic subsists and the need for self-sufficiency in local drug production persists.
Ohuabunwa called for dedicated allocation of foreign exchange (forex) to the healthcare industry especially pharmaceutical firms.