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Expect Nigeria’s COVID-19 drug in12 months – Esimone, UNIZIK VC

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He is a renowned scholar in Biopharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Microbiology with over 100 publications to his credit. A vibrant intellectual presiding over one of the fastest growing universities in Nigeria today, PROFESSOR CHARLES OKECHUKWU ESIMONE bestrides his discipline and career as a colossus. Indeed, a golden fish has no hiding place and the OrientDaily Newspaper team of SIMON NJOKU, Associate Editor; Dr. AZUBUIKE NKALA, Member, Editorial Board; IJEOMA, Advert Officer and UDO OGBONNA, Photojournalist had to seek him out for this explosive interview in which he assured Nigerians of a homegrown Covid-19 drug in the next 12 months, among others. Excerpts.

On the 14 of May 2019, you were appointed the Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University. Could you briefly talk about your journey to this position?

Thank you very much. Before being appointed as the Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, I served as pioneer Dean, Faculty of Pharmaceutical sciences from 2009 to 2014 precisely. After that, I was appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University where I served from 2014 to 2019. Same 2019 and by special grace of God, I was elected the 6th substantive Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University. Before my appointment as Dean in UNIZIK, I was at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where I served in various capacities before I went on to do my Post Doctoral Fellowship in Germany. I later went for another programme in USA where I was asked to anchor the Malaria Vaccine Development Programme.

As a Professor of Biopharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Microbiology, why are we having problems developing Nigerian COVID-19 Vaccine?

Part of what I did in Germany and United States of America was on vaccine development. In Nigeria, the challenge of developing a COVID-19 vaccine is infrastructure. This is because the kind of research that will lead to meaningful development of the drugs needs full infrastructure. As we speak now, I have some grants from TETfund for securing some logistics and plans to produce vaccine on COVID-19. I sent one of my research assistants to Ghana to negotiate with people in Ghana. There was little delay there for the past two months but we have been doing the work. But it will take us more time to complete the lab. This has delayed the research and part of the condition for the research grant is that we are supposed to deliver it within one year.
It is now past one year because of our trips to Ghana. The place I sent it in Ghana had no fantastic facility for a variety research as at 2009 when I was there, but between that time and now,
they have developed to an extent that they can now compete with top research institutes in Europe and America. So, the problem is infrastructure and we have paid heavily to use the infrastructure in

The Central Bank of Nigeria and other banks in the country have come out to support this kind of project. What other kinds of support are you talking about?

You see, infrastructure is not just building. It will include constant power supply because the kind of laboratory we use to do this kind of work must not depend on generator. There is need for a 24-hour uninterrupted power supply because during what we call cell culture, we have cells that are immortal. So, for them to be alive we need to have oxygen and other necessities available round the clock, otherwise the cells will die. Infrastructure also has to do with the equipment that is needed which comes with a lot of cost and we believe that if some of these basic things are put in place, some of us that have the know-how expertise will be able to do that. Nevertheless, my institution has gone beyond waiting for people to provide for us, we have adopted Public Private Partnership approach and it is almost complete and within the next two or three months, it will be functional. That’s the way to go.

How will you rate the efforts of the Nigerian researchers and how soon do you think we can get the Nigerian COVID-19 drug or vaccine?

Importantly, the awareness has been created. What we lacked before was awareness. People didn’t know that they can be involved in this.
People have been stimulated. So, I believe that in the next couple of months or less than a year and with the CBN and TETfund intervention, we can push further. Also, CBN interventions are not channeled towards basic research. They only try to fund research that have been finished
or completed. That is evidence based on laboratory studies; ample evidence that this thing is working and they now go to test it in humans. That’s the bulk of their support focus, and of course, the
manufacturing aspects, the development of the drugs, getting partners and companies, commercialization and other things. Of course,
this is an important place for them to focus on. The basic ones are supposed to be left to basic funding which is what we are trying to do now. So, in the next 12 months, we should expect the drug.
Again, as I said, my research assistant is in Ghana and I’m beginning to see some interesting results but have not analyzed them completely. Our preliminary studies are showing very interesting results and we believe that if we repeat it over and over and it shows the same result, we can say fine this laboratory studies is sound. Then we go to the next level which is human clinical trial; checking the safety, and we look  at the developmental aspect because if you have a product
that is effective, the next thing is how you are going to package it, whether in capsule, syrup or even as a tea. All of these cost money
and people don’t normally invest in these areas. We are hoping that with this awareness, plausible drugs like these will attract investors. Companies and organizations should come and partner with
universities in the areas of research because it is not cheap and it is not what government alone can do. Government can only provide infrastructure like power, equipments, etc.

By your estimation, how much do you think it will cost to completely achieve this?

Like l said, it depends on the kind of medicament that one wants. If one is working on crude drugs, what are involved are leaves and herbs.
If you check their efficacy and safety and it is okay, you can standardize them by making them in tea bags. It depends, though some may not cost more than N100million to complete at basic level, but, if it is as a product, or inform of vaccines and the rest, one may be budgeting N60 billion to complete it.

You are one of the youngest university vice chancellors, what can you say are the challenges in the university system?
Well, challenges in the university system are fairly common among institutions but my own case is a bit peculiar because the greatest monster challenge is funding. My case is peculiar because as a federal university, we don’t get take off grants. Universities that are owned by the Federal Government do not get take off grants. It is
the take off grant that enables universities establish basic infrastructure like classrooms, offices, hospitals, staff quarters and the rest. Some of these structures in our university were built
courtesy of our internally generated revenue and as a result, we don’t have a lot of hostels. These infrastructural challenges are there for
everyone to see. Each vice chancellor tries to solve one or the other before he leaves. There is also running cost which is very high. Take,
for instance, the steady expenses on diesel due to the unsteady power supply and maintenance costs. You think of the welfare of the staff and
students. The staff generally retires with welfare in one way or the other. If they need to attend conferences and workshops the university will fund them, we have to struggle to raise the money.
Apart from that, generally, we have seen a large number of candidates seeking admission into the university but the space, manpower and facility are
not adequate to admit all. We have the challenges of insecurity where things have heated up and there is uncertainty everywhere. So, all these problems boil down to finance. If we are given enough money in the university system, 90 percent of the problems will be over.

What are the implications of these challenges for your dream of making Nnamdi Azikiwe University one of the first 200 universities in
the world?
My Project 200 is not going to be deterred in any way. I’m very focused about that. What we try to do is to think outside the box. If, for instance, funding is not sustainable as we are seeing it, then we
think of how to generate funding. What I’m doing is to engage public private partnership in the development of the university. So, I have attracted a lot of investors and we are showing them that the ecosystem is friendly. I also know that one of the greatest problems of achieving any goal is human capacity. You know, if you have workers who are trained properly, the job can be a bit easier and you know that the VC cannot do it alone. So, what we do is to look for fund for training our staff and we have been getting it. Staff trainings have made a lot of impact in this university as the level of commitment is increasing daily. Importantly, we are trying to leverage on the role of ICT. We can accomplish so much with our leveraging on technologies. So technology is one of our drives and what makes institutions visible is the fact that we are in a global village. Someone can access what we are doing here from anywhere in the world. So this area that we are plucking needs funding but what we need more are ideas. The idea is to still meet up with this target despite the diminished and dwindling funding. For instance, our students’ transcripts that used to be manual have been moved to electronic such that it is now accessible from anywhere in the world. We have re-engineered our website, making it more interactive. Our community involvement is on the increase as we are doing so many things to help solve the communities’ problems. Many people now know about UNIZIK.  The spotlight is here because of the way we are moving.

Awka is a traditional society that has grown into urbanity and it has this heritage of blacksmithing.  To what extent has your university harnessed this area?

Just as you rightly said, it is a traditional thing for Awka and we want to harness this area. That is why we established a department on material and metallurgical engineering and the students are leveraging on that. We got a grant of about $500,000 around 2007 and it was to enhance the funding. However there was a little challenge and that’s why we have not been able to go back to our operation. Actually, last year if not the COVID-19, there was a serious meeting we had with stakeholders to re-engineer our funding unit to now leverage on that aspect. The good news now is that we now have TETfund Center of Excellence for engineering, biomedical, and agricultural sciences and one of the key mandates of the Center is to leverage on what we can develop using the traditional blacksmith. That Center of Excellence focuses on translational research not basic research. Whatever people had researched or done and how it can be translated into goods and services that are marketable. But there is a big challenge here trying to transfer that kind of knowledge. For instance, an average Awka person, except he is involved in the process, thinks that we are trying to steal their knowledge, but we are trying to convince them, somehow.

UNIZIK is the preferred choice of many UTME candidates, to what level have you been able to fulfill the needs of these candidates?

Like I said before, one of the challenges we have is how we can absorb the pool of candidates who want to come to Nnamdi Azikiwe University for study. Though the infrastructure is not 100 percent available but during my tenure, we have increased the capacity from about 6,400 to 9,500. So, there is an increase of 3,000 within one year of taking over. What we are doing now is opening avenues for skills acquisition like the Chike Okoli Centre for Entrepreneurship Studies; even the Chinese language Confucius Institute is also there for language skill. We tell people that with the Chinese language skills acquired here, a lot of persons have started earning livelihood through the language skill obtained and are paid well. All these are to meet the yearning needs of young Nigerians to get education.

There is this plan to unbundle the Mass Communication Department of the university. To what extent have you gone with the plan? What other departments
are being unbundled?

Mass communication department is the one for now followed by the Faculty of Medicine. The unbundling of Mass Communication has gone far and we are just waiting for an official confirmation from the University Senate, having sent them the report through the Curriculum Committee. In terms of space and infrastructure, we have been able to identify basic infrastructure where they can fit in. So, by the end of the year we would have concluded everything. Faculty of medicine has also gone far. They have done their unbundling and there are some departments that have now come under basic clinical while core ones like surgery and medicine proper are under medicine.

What do you want to be known for as your contribution to Igbo intelligentsia in the Nigerian project?

That’s actually a tough one because virtually everything I do including my philosophy about growth, development and transformation is done under the Igbo philosophy and ideology. I know that the Igbo ideology of Igwebuike is one of the things that have helped me to be involved in massive capacity building because I know that I can’t do it alone and I had to train people. But the most important one is that of innovation; that does not believe that anything is impossible and that is what I tell my youths and students. Once there is tomorrow, I believe that nothing is impossible. That is my philosophy.

Tell us what you have done with respect to students and workers’ welfare?

That is one of my heartbeats. Students’ welfare is paramount in my administration. When I came in, hostel students’ welfare was so pathetic and I felt so bad about it. Male students were going to toilets outside their hostels while women defecated inside rubber bags. But when I came in I renovated the hostels and made them self-contained. We came and discovered that ICT is the key, now Wi-Fi service is available to every registered student of the institution. Extortion was too much in the departments and faculties and we had to put a stop to that practice by clearly stating how much the students should pay. On the case of lecturers who don’t attend their classes and set exams, we have set a system whereby we check who attends classes and who doesn’t. We have also given students an independent APP where they can assess a lecturer’s performance. In terms of overall governance I gave the SUG government a brand new bus when I came on board to increase their self worth and go about their duties. On infrastructure, we want to do a renovation of all the classrooms and of course we don’t have the fund but I believe that once I have a vision, I put it first and then, allow God to provide. As for lecturers, it’s on record that promotions are not delayed since I became the VC. Promotions come out as and when due. We have new professors in the institution. For the first time in the university, when we had no productivity, I gave my workers productivity bonus after the COVID-19 scourge by sourcing the fund from somewhere.

There was an allegation that you were filling the university with your relations and friends and that admission into the institution is done on cash and carry basis, what’s your response to this?

Of course, you already know that it is false. That is why I said that the university has social media visibility. But the truth is that I don’t look at faces for admissions. My Vice Chancellor’s list for admission is an open door policy and on merit, not by face. The rich and the poor benefit in my list. I don’t need to know anyone before I give an admission as my mission is to help the downtrodden. People that work with me are recruited on the basis of capacity, not personal relationship. I don’t practise tribalism, even my personal assistant is a Yoruba person. The keyword for me is competence.

The cost of post graduate research is becoming so high. Is there anyway your institution is giving assistance to candidates who may want to do these programmes in your university?

We give assistance to our staff which is part of the welfare package we give. Anyone that is a staff of this institution whether junior or senior, enjoys 50 percent discount for post graduate programmes in our school. For those who are not staff of UNIZIK, we do not have any assistance because the PG school is self sustaining. The only thing we do is to expose the post graduate students to get grants which can support the work they are doing. That’s why we do workshops on research grants for those who are interested.

Employers of labour complain about the low quality of Nigerian graduates with some saying that they are unemployable. Could you comment on this? 

That is the bitter truth. Nigerian graduates generally even in my own profession are unemployable. When they come out from school and you employ them, you need to train them again. It is true but we believe it can change. That is what we have been saying that the emphasis on paper certificate is bad. That is why graduates are not interested in learning some skills because they know that they cannot cheat to get skills unlike certificate. Emphasis should be on what graduates can do, that is the only way to be employable. Again, the most important one is on providing infrastructure and equipment in the system that trains them. If we don’t address infrastructural deficit, we will keep on having this kind of problems. Lastly, there is this kind of thing that is being done in Europe and America called SIWES (Students Industrial Work Experience Scheme) that we are joking with. SIWES is the most powerful scheme to train employable graduates. In Germany where I trained, for every course a student is doing in the sciences,
the student does compulsory SIWES in different industries at every point in time so that by the time he graduates, he is grounded in different areas.

FG has phased out tuition fees in federal universities, but the introduction of acceptance fee seems to have indirectly replaced tuition fees. What is your reaction to this?  

Acceptance fee is very common in all universities now and there is no way somebody wants to come and start a programme and the basic infrastructures needed are not there. There is a commitment those who want to study make and which in this case is financial. Again, if you l look at the components of the acceptance fee, who will pay for the biometric capturing machine? Is it government? Left for me, if government can give universities money for these equipments it will help reduce cost for students. The acceptance fee is for year one students because of the quantum of what we need to do. It is to help the institution as well as the students.

How have you been able to handle cultism within the university community especially at this period of rapid cultist attacks in the host

Just like you know, security issues and strategies are not for the press but let’s say that we have a system that is working and it is helping us tame cultism without necessarily carrying arms. There is a high level of surveillance within the university community. We silently identify cultists and make them undergo counseling. In the next few months, we will organize a massive awareness programme to issue our zero tolerance to cultism and prevent the cult activities in the town from entering the institution.

Finally, you are one of the foremost Igbo scholars of contemporary times with over 100 publications to your credit. Now, what do you think about the 2023 Igbo Presidency project?

Laughs! Well, politics is one of those things we try to shy away from because we are federal government employees and we try to be very conscious of it. I must say that in every sphere, 2023 should be something that will be decided on agreement. It is not an individual thing. So, if the Igbo want to take over, they have to reach a consensus and start talking. First, they have to talk among themselves and then talk with other regions. They must not do a one man show; there is need for a consensus. We need to first of all see ourselves
as one before we go out to speak to others. I’m one of those that strongly believe that it is God that makes one king.

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