Senegal is country with roughly the same population with Kano State in Nigeria.
There are maybe two million more people there than in Kano, which has about 14 million people.
The GDP of Senegal, at $25bn is however twice that of Kano.
It has twice the number of public universities that Kano has, added to the nearly dozen private ones.
Senegal’s biggest and oldest university has about 60,000 students.
The University of Dakar, later renamed Cheikh Anta Diop University grew out of the African Medical School of the colonial era.
Today, it has an annual budget of about $30m.
Bayero University Kano (BUK), on the other hand has a little less than 10,000 students.
And as for its annual budget, it is a well guarded secret just like that of every public university in Nigeria.
That hasn’t stopped engineers at BUK from developing a prototype ventilator, which is in sudden and urgent demand to save lives of patients suffering severe respiratory illnesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This, they have done at a cost of N500, 000.
Considering the frequently quoted $16,000 price tag in the international market, it would be quite a feat if the university could actually go ahead and manufacture the ventilators in commercial quantities.
Research institutes in Senegal have done much better though.
With 3D printing, engineers there have developed a $60 ventilator, which is about five per cent the cost of ventilator made by BUK.
But what has really caught the attention of the world is the $1 test kit used to detect the presence of COVID-19 in saliva or blood.
In the past, Senegal has been location of choice for a number of medical research institutes and universities
A short video clip of an Aljazeera news report on the Senegalese test kit has gone viral in Nigeria.
Senegal has had experience in fighting infectious diseases, from Ebola to dengue fever and has had cause to invest in medical research laboratories.
To most Nigerians, the development of the $1 test kits represents how far behind their own country is when it comes to scientific research.
The research lab behind the test kit, Institut Pasteur, is based in Paris, France with presence around the world, including Senegal.
One of its notable successes is the discovery of HIV virus for which it won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The test kits it developed in Senegal were in collaboration with Mologic Ltd, a British company that develops diagnostic products for the research market.
But it isn’t accidental that search to develop affordable test kits, maybe even treatment drugs and vaccines would take place in the West African country.
In the past, Senegal has been location of choice for a number of medical research institutes and universities.
In early April 2020, two French doctors, live on television, suggested conducting trials of a drug used to treat tuberculosis on coronavirus patients in Africa even though the continent had and still has the lowest rate of infections in the world.
Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin Hospital in Paris and Camille Locht of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research spoke very casually about testing drugs on African because as one said, it’s “a bit like as it was done elsewhere for studies on AIDS.
In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”
The response, mostly from Africans and French citizens of African descent was outrage, accusing both men of racism.
But from the wider French public and political leaders, the response was mostly silence.
Generally in Europe, if comments like that had been made about any other nationality or racial group, both doctors would probably have tendered their resignations.
The most that happened was an apology from Dr. Mira and an insulting statement from the Paris research institute that Locht was the subject of erroneous interpretation. Africans, it seems are dispensable in the French public eye.
Here are two French doctors admitting that drug trials for treating HIV/AIDS had been conducted on African prostitutes.
Whether the prostitutes the doctors were referring to willingly took part in the trials or were unknowingly party to a study cannot be said.
But dozens of western universities and medical research institutes have conducted studies of AIDS drugs and vaccines in Africa.
Right now, Gates is the only one trying to ensure rich nations don’t put themselves first if and whenever an effective drug or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed
The University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada worked extensively with the University of Nairobi, Kenya. in a study that involved prostitutes and the search to develop AIDS vaccine.
The New York Times, in February 2000, reported some of the findings from the study of 1,900 prostitutes who enrolled in the programme.
The fascination with this particular study was how a small number of the prostitutes remained immune to HIV even after being regularly exposed to infected men.
But there was an even more expansive research involving African prostitutes and their exposure to HIV/AIDS.
The study went on for 25 years and was conducted by Harvard University, the University of Dakar and two French universities.
What the research team discovered in the women was a different type of HIV which they termed HIV-2.
Its risk of transmission, they found, was five times less than HIV-1, less likely to develop into AIDS, with better survival rates.
The women infected with HIV-2 also appeared to be protected from HIV-1.
Like the study in Kenya, this was cause for optimism in developing a vaccine.
Free medical care was reportedly provided for the thousands of prostitutes involved in this study in Senegal.
What that meant in the middle of a study in itself raises many questions.
There is no doubt that the University of Dakar benefited immensely from the collaboration with Harvard University and its medical school.
They managed to build standard research laboratories, build personnel capacity and gain invaluable knowledge.
The society at whole benefitted from the research as Senegal is today touted as a model for other African countries in curbing the AIDS scourge.
Since then, Harvard AIDS initiative has spread across the continent.
The lead investigator in that study helped set up the AIDS Prevention in Nigeria back in 2001.
But the recent suggestion by the two French doctors has placed a cloud on the methodology of western research institutions and all that has taken place in the past, at least when it concerns Africa.
There is no better time for Nigeria to develop home grown solutions for its public health challenges
Kano has had its fair share covert trials of experimental drugs disguised as treatment episodes.
Back in 1996, a pharmaceutical giant that heavily invests in research, Pfizer, used the outbreak of meningitis as cover to test an experimental drug, Trovan, on at least 100 children in Kano.
As it turned out, the trial were done without any legal consent.
Some of the children died, others developed lifelong medical conditions.
That was just the beginning of the scandal. It later evolved into cover ups and threats.
It was a case that ended up in litigation on different continents and it would take over a decade for Pfizer to come to an out of court settlement, paying compensation to the tune of $75m to the victims.
Still, top officials in Kano during the time of the settlement have faced accusations of selling out and settling for a sum far less than what the victims deserved.
The experience was enough to raise suspicions about any kind of vaccination in Nigeria.
The two French doctors who suggested holding trials of the tuberculosis drugs on COVID-19 patients in Africa have succeeded in creating even more suspicions about the use of vaccines and what the true purposes of vaccination exercises are.
It is bad enough that millions of people around the world have very strong feelings against vaccines.
Even in the west, opinions are so strong now that there are conspiracy theories about the intentions of Microsoft founder, Bill Gates in pouring billions to develop vaccines, which he has long advocated for.
Gates has consistently warned that the world should be prepared for pandemics.
He is someone that believes in vaccines and family planning.
Both are now been used again him to suggest he is behind the COVID-19 outbreak and is planning to use vaccines to implant digital microchips in people in order to track them.
Nobody has accepted all of Bill Gates’ ideas.
But in the last decade, very few people have invested more in public health and saved as many lives in Africa.
Right now, Gates is the only one trying to ensure rich nations don’t put themselves first if and whenever an effective drug or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed.
The billionaire who has already pledged $250M to combat COVID-19 wants potential drugs and vaccines to be deployed fairly.
In the end, though Gates may have a very powerful voice with deep pockets to back it up, he is still just one person.
After all the research and testing of anti-retroviral drugs for treating HIV/AIDS that have taken place, today the drugs are widely available around the world but still too expensive for Africans.
Even in South Africa where there are still high numbers of infections, the availability of the drugs is a politically explosive topic.
Nigeria doesn’t have the culture of investing and promoting non-profit or even commercial research laboratories
The reality isn’t very far off from what those French doctors suggested.
Africa is their first point of call for testing controversial drugs and vaccines.
And if they prove to work, Africa will be the last to get the drugs.
Even the drug that has been approved in the United States for treating COVID-19 patients was initially created to treat Ebola in Africa.
It didn’t help the African patients it was used on.
There is no better time for Nigeria to develop home grown solutions for its public health challenges.
Even without going through Nigeria’s budgets of the last few years, one is almost certain that no meaningful allocation was made for anything that resembles investment in science and research on public health.
Nigeria doesn’t have the culture of investing and promoting non-profit or even commercial research laboratories.
The many teaching hospitals are barely functional and are oblivious of the countries public health needs.
They operate more like commercial hospitals.
But it doesn’t have to remain that way.
Putting together the structures, research personnel and a workable plan will take years of investments.
The first step towards this would be a call for more transparency in the budgets and spending habits of public universities.
There is no better way to prioritise than talking openly about where their money should go.
For now, every Nigerian is completely dependent on the drugs and vaccines these same foreign medical research institutes pharmaceutical companies present as treatment or cure for COVID-19.
And regardless of age, whether teenagers or septuagenarians, sooner or later, everyone will need the vaccine.