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Nigerian Ex-lawmaker makes spurious claims about Astrazeneca vaccine, mostly false

Daniel Schludi/Unsplash 6 mins read

Claim: Senator Dino Melaye in a video shared on Instagram made spurious claims about the AstraZeneca vaccine received by Nigeria, noting the Nigerian government did not make the best choice of vaccines.

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Amid the growing need to produce and purchase vaccines, Nigeria received 3.94 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, shipped via the COVAX Facility, a partnership between CEPI Gavi, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) and is the choice vaccine for the COVAX initiative. COVAX is the vaccine pillar Access to COVID-19 tools (ACT)  accelerator which seeks to speed up the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.

In line with this, COVAX launched a financing instrument called the Advance Market Commitment (AMC), aimed at supporting the participation of 92 lower and middle-income economies of which Nigeria is part. At least 1.3 billion donor-funded doses will be made available to these countries in the first quarter of 2021.

Ghana was the first country to benefit from the programme after receiving 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines followed by Ivory Coast which received over 500, 000 doses. Nigeria is currently the biggest benefactor of the initiative in the first phase. The West African nation is expecting a total of 16 million jabs that will come in four phases.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has the major advantages of being inexpensive, as it costs about £2.50 per dose, which made it ideal for large-scale vaccination programmes, hence the reason it was COVAX’ choice. 

Although several concerns have been raised about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, following South Africa’s rejection of the vaccine, it is deemed the most suitable for developing countries like Nigeria because it is cheap, easy to make and store (at normal fridge temperature unlike Pfizer and Moderna which must be stored under an extremely cold temperature of -70C and -20C respectively).

On Tuesday, a 5minutes 6seconds video of Senator Dino Melaye condemning the choice of AstraZeneca vaccine for Nigeria was shared on Instagram by Tunde Ednut @Kingtundeednut.  

According to the senator, the Nigerian government did not go for the best vaccine as the AstraZeneca vaccine is the least potent vaccine among the four approved vaccines by the WHO and the one with the worst side effects. The side effects he listed include pain, headache, tiredness, muscle ache, fever, chills, joint ache, and nausea.

He also claimed that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) budgeted N300billion for this vaccine.

“The Nigerian government did not go for the best putting Nigerians into consideration. There are 4 notable vaccines. The least potent of these 4 is what the Nigerian government imported. This same one imported by the Nigerian government has the worst side effect. If you look at the total trial effectiveness of these vaccines, you discover that AstraZeneca is 62% 14 days after the second dose while Pfizer is 95% 28 days after the second dose. Modern is 94% while Johnson and Johnson is 74%.

The budget the CBN made available for this is 300billion. It is outrageously calamitous, very unfair of them to go with the least.”

Excerpt of Dino Melaye’s comments from the interview.

Screenshot of Tundeednut’s Instagram post.

Verification

Dubawa conducted a keyword search which led to a Twitter post by Dino Melaye with a similar claim with a table attached. According to this Twitter post, Dino said “the Indian vaccine imported by the Federal Government is the least of the recognised vaccines out there. Potency is low”.

Screenshot of the Twitter post by Dino Melaye.

From the video shared on Instagram, the logo of Roots Television was seen, so we traced the video to Roots Tv Youtube page and found the 5 minutes 9 seconds video there.

Screenshot of Roots Tv Youtube page containing the video

Claim 1: The vaccine is from India

AstraZeneca vaccine which was developed by British firm AstraZeneca, working in partnership with Oxford University, is manufactured under license by the Serum Institute in India. This makes the senator’s claim on the source of the vaccine true.

The vaccine is “virus-vectored”, meaning it is a version of a virus that normally infects chimpanzees but has been modified with a portion of the COVID-19 coronavirus called the “spike protein” to fire the immune system. Once in human cells, the vaccine helps stimulate the production of antibodies that will resist COVID-19.

On February 15, 2021, the WHO listed two versions of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, giving the green light for these vaccines to be rolled out globally through COVAX.

Screenshot of Product details by WHO

Claim 2: The vaccine is not safe and the least effective(efficacy is 62%)

This claim that the AstraZeneca vaccine is the least effective compared to Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson Johnson vaccine is true but this does not mean the vaccine is ineffective. While it is true there was a 62.1% efficacy recorded in participants who received two standard doses, in participants who received a low dose followed by a standard dose, efficacy was 90·0% and overall vaccine efficacy across both groups was 70·4%.

The claim that the vaccine is not safe is false and misleading as the WHO does not list a vaccine without accessing its quality, safety and efficacy. According to the WHO document on the vaccine, it is 63.09% effective.

Also, according to data published by the Lancet medical journal on December 8, 2021, the vaccine is “safe and effective”. This data showed that between April 23 and November 4, 2020, 23, 848 participants were enrolled and 11, 636 participants (7,548 in the UK, 4,088 in Brazil) were included in the interim primary efficacy analysis. 

This data suggests the AstraZeneca vaccine also has potential to substantially affect virus transmission, by reducing the number of highly infectious people in a population.

Similarly, Nigeria’s health minister, Osagie Ehanire, said the WHO has given the nod to go ahead with the use of the vaccine, as long as the variant is not that of South African.

“Now we turn to WHO and asked, “What do we do?” They said well, if you don’t have the South African variant you can use it”, the official explained. “We don’t have that variant, meaning we can use it,” he said.

Although the vaccine is not effective against the South African variant, it has proven to be effective against mild to moderate cases of the UK variant “lineage B.1.1.7” which has also been found in Nigeria.

The vaccine has also been received or already in use in about 12 other African countries

Claim 3: CBN budgeted 300 billion for vaccine

The senator claims with a budget of 300billion for vaccine procurement it is “calamitous” that the Nigerian government went for the least. This claim is false as all  CBN efforts toward COVID-19 and the vaccine do not have a budget of N300 billion. CBN released N10 billion for local vaccine production and N253.4 million grant under the bank’s Healthcare Sector Research and Development Intervention Scheme (HSRDIS) to address the pandemic.

Claim 4:  AstraZeneca has the worst Side effects

This claim.is false as the side effects associated with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in the trial were mild and moderate and they got better in days. 

Also, the most common side effects are pain and tenderness at the site of injection, headache, tiredness, muscle pain, chills, fever, joint pain, and nausea which is about the same side effects for Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnsons Jassens vaccine.

Only one of the 23,754 volunteers who participated in the trials experienced “possibly-related severe side effects”.

Conclusion

These claims by the senator are a combination of true and false information. While it is true the vaccine is from India, and the least effective in percentage when compared to other vaccines, the vaccine is not ineffective nor does it have the worst side effects. Also the CBN did not budget N300 billion for vaccine procurement and the first batch of vaccines received from COVAX were free.

As vaccines are received and rolled out, information will continue to be twisted and misinterpreted but we will continue to push out the right information to counter  misinformation.

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