Nigerian scientists and researchers were not able to win the sum of N36 million offered by the Federal Government as reward for discovering cures for COVID-19 and Lassa Fever, checks have revealed.
The prize was announced on February 13, 2020, by then Minister of Science and Technology (now Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology), Dr Ogbonnaya Onu.
However, checks revealed that, as of Tuesday, 21 November, 2023 – more than three years after – nobody has been able to claim the cash prize.
Announcing the cash prize, Onu had said, “I challenge all Nigerian scientists to go out and find cures for coronavirus and Lassa fever. Any scientist that is able to do this will be given N36 million.”
“There is nothing that we want to do that we can’t do. Nigeria will be making contributions to the world,” he added.
At the time the minister dangled the cash prize before Nigerian scientists, coronavirus had not spread beyond China, where about a thousand deaths have been recorded.
Less than a month after the cash prize was announced, on March 1, 2020, a former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, Prof. Maurice Iwu, at a meeting with Onu at the headquarters of the Ministry in Abuja, unveiled what he described as a potential cure for COVID-19.
Iwu is a Professor of pharmacognosy and the potential cure was developed by his research group, Bioresources Institute of Nigeria, BION.
Noting that a Non-Clinical Evaluation Agreement was signed between the research group and the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, an agency of the US government, on February 27, 2020, Iwu appealed to the Federal Government and Nigerians to support the group to develop its potential cure into a drug. He said the only factor hindering the development of the drug is finance.
In his response to Iwu’s presentation, Onu advised the research group to make its discoveries available to a team set up by the Federal Government to test potential cures and medical innovations.
The minister added that the N36 million cash prize which the Federal Government offered to any Nigerian that discovers cures for coronavirus and Lassa Fever was meant to motivate scientists in the country.
Subsequently, in May 2020, the minister disclosed that following the announcement of the cash prize, a committee has been set up to look into claims by some Nigerians who are insisting that they have found the cure for the COVID-19 disease.
“You will recall that on 13th February, 2020, I challenged Nigerian scientists to find a cure for the COVID-19 disease, and pledged a financial reward of N36 million.
“Since then, many institutions and individuals have written to us claiming their research results and natural products can cure the COVID-19.
“Accordingly, a committee comprising Fellows of the Nigerian Academy of Science will help us review these claims,” Onu said on May 14, 2020.
That was the last that was heard about the cash prize.
Iwu’s attempt is the most publicised among efforts made by Nigerian researchers and scientists to develop a cure for COVID-19.
Apparently, Iwu and his research group did not succeed in producing the cure as, by the time COVID-19 spread across the world, Nigeria had to rely on vaccines imported from abroad to curb the spread of the disease.
Not much was heard of efforts by Nigerian scientists to claim the N36 million by finding a cure for Lassa Fever, a more localised and, arguably, deadlier disease.
There is still no certain cure for Lassa Fever, a seasonal disease that usually breaks out in parts of Nigeria during the dry season, with most infections resulting in death.
N36 million cash prize unclaimed, forgotten
After three years, Nigerian scientists were not able to collect the N36 million cash prize.
Sources in the Federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology informed DAILY POST that the cash prize was not won by any scientist.
With COVID-19 no longer a public health concern, as was the case at the time the Federal Government offered the N36 cash prize, it seems the offer has been overtaken by events. On the other hand, Lassa Fever has remained a public health emergency in Nigeria.
Checks further revealed that the N36 million cash prize has been forgotten, with the departure of the former minister, Ogbonnaya Onu, who championed the project.
The exit of the former administration, headed by Muhammadu Buhari, who was the President when the prize was announced, also indicates that the matter has been overtaken by events, and consigned to history.
It observed that three years after, many relevant government officials are not even aware of the N36 million cash prize.
When contacted on Tuesday, November 21, the Director of Press and Public Relations in the Federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology, Mr Aurora Obed, noted that he is not aware of the N36 million cash prize.
“I am not even aware because I was not there at the time. I am a new person in the Ministry,” he said in response to enquiries .
At the time the cash prize was announced, the minister, Onu, disclosed that the Nigerian Academy of Science has been giving the responsibility of vetting submissions by researchers and scientists towards identifying the winner of the N36 million.
Established in 1977, the Nigerian Academy of Science is the foremost independent scientific body in Nigeria dedicated to the development and advancement of science, technology, and innovation, and bringing scientific knowledge to positively guide policies/strategic direction of the country.
However, when contacted , Prof Mosto Onuoha, the President of the Academy at the time the prize was announced, noted that the issue was inconclusive.
Asked if any scientist won the prize, he said, “Not to my knowledge. I don’t think so. I don’t even know how many submissions were even made.
“I don’t think that matter was concluded, especially since the then minister (Ogbonnaya Onu) left office more than a year ago.”
Further asked if the Academy was concerned that no Nigerian scientist was able to win the prize, Onuoha suggested that the cash prize was not clearly conceptualised.
“It is of concern but then we don’t know how the minister went about it. I heard the announcement, in fact the minister then said it at several places.
“But I don’t know whether there was a proper arrangement. You have to have a timeline, a way of submission, if possible an advert. I don’t remember seeing any of them. What I remember was hearing that announcement.”
The Professor Emeritus of Geology added: “The Academy of Science has a prize, just like the NLNG Science Prize. The NLNG Science Prize has a timeline, specifications and all necessary details.
“Maybe, for the N36 million prize, the minister expected that if you have something, send it to the Ministry.
“If you check, you will find out that either nobody submitted, or people submitted but there was no uniform or directed procedure or focal point.
“I think your finding is right because if there is anybody who claimed it (the N36 million prize) we would have known.
“Why it is so I don’t know, it could be any of these things, it could be nobody considered that he has done enough work to merit the prize.”
Continuing, he said, “N36 million is not a very large amount, afterall the NLNG Science Prize is even one hundred thousand US dollars – they (NLNG) may have increased it now. A hundred thousand dollars is a large amount when compared to N36 million.
“The Academy gives money too but we also give the gold medal because we recognize money is important but it is not everything.”