In this interview with Science Nigeria, the director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba, talks about the expanding terms of reference in biosafety and biotechnology, the adverse effects of lobbying on the agency’s standard procedures as, well as prospects for Africa, with Nigeria leading other countries in biotechnology and safety development.
Since its establishment in 2015, what are the hallmarks of NBMA in terms of biosafety and biotechnology regulation?
The establishment of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in 2015 came about through the enactment of an ACT duly signed by the President. The agency had to recruit personnel and develop policies to operationalise it. As the pioneer chief executive, I transformed the ACT into a structure and gave it life. The hallmark of the agency includes setting up structures, institutional arrangements, personnel training, retraining and the development of various guidelines. The agency also grants permits and reviews applications for genetically modified organisms or products (GMOs). It enlightens the public on biosafety and assures them that only safe GMOs are allowed in the Nigerian market and environment.
The NBMA established a national biosafety GM detection analysis laboratory to ascertain the status of any GM product. It ensures Nigeria’s state and assures collaboration with other Ministry, Department, and Agencies (MDAs) by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with agencies like the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) and the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) to assist in controlling the movement of GMOs at the border. The agency established and developed a memorandum with the Federal University of Petroleum Resources in establishing a Biosafety Centre of Excellence to train a critical mass in the area of biosafety and biosecurity. Recently, the agency developed a National Biosecurity Policy and Action Plan, putting Nigeria on the map of managing and controlling harmful biological agents, broadening the scope of other MDAs that have some responsibility towards biosecurity.
The NBMA has developed risk assessment and management strategies to ensure that no GMO in the country is released without risk assessment, and the review of the application process has been perfected. The agency has received international recognition and currently chairs the African Biosafety Regulators Forum, participating in the negotiations at the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity Diversity (UNCDB). Other African countries have come to understudy what Nigeria does in the area of biosafety.
In 2019, the National Biosafety Management Act was amended to include some other aspects of emerging biotechnology, and the agency was also mandated to put in place biosecurity measures to ensure harmful biological agents are properly contained and not maliciously used to cause harm to the environment and human health. The NBMA put necessary policies in place and stakeholders met on the implementation of the policy.
There was an attempt to amend the biosafety law last year, but it was a bad move for the country, as the current law ensures that the country is protected from the malicious use of biological agents.
The agency’s mandate was recently reviewed and the agency was given more responsibilities in terms of biosafety regulation…
In 2019, the National Biosafety Management Act was amended to include other aspects of emerging biotechnology and related areas, such as synthetic biology, gene drive and gene editing. The agency was mandated through that act to put in place biosecurity measures to ensure that harmful biological agents are properly contained and not maliciously used to cause harm to the environment and human health, and by extension, to protect the Nigerian economy from the various distortions that may result from infectious organisms. Regarding Nigeria’s mandate in the area of biosecurity, we have been able to put the necessary policies in place, and we have also had stakeholder meetings on the implementation of the policy. I can tell you that this policy is one of its kind in Africa and it is a source of pride for the continent.
The roles of stakeholders, both in the private and public sectors, are well-defined. I believe that with synergy, cooperation and a focus on national interest, Nigeria will be protected from the malicious use of biological agents.
Recently, there was a move by a group to amend the biosafety law. What is your impression of that lobbying attempt?
Last year, a proponent attempted to amend the NBMA ACT and it even went as far as the second reading in the Senate. However, the executive should have been contacted to establish the need for that amendment. If there was one, the agency would point out the areas where it was needed. It would not have been wise to come up with an amendment that would make the law unimplementable and stifle biotechnological research and development. If the bill had passed, it would have been a disaster for research institutes vested in biological science. Fortunately, the leadership of the National Assembly saw the need for that bill to not move further. I hope it will not come up again.
Can you explain biosecurity in simple terms?
Biosecurity refers to measures taken to ensure that harmful biological viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms are not maliciously used to cause harm. These agents are not stolen, released intentionally or unintentionally to cause harm. Harmful biological agents cause most diseases, like Ebola and COVID-19. The goal of biosecurity is to minimise or avoid biological threats.
What is Nigeria’s biosecurity framework and how does it compare to that of other African countries?
Nigeria’s biological safety framework is encompassing and has received positive feedback from the international community. However, Africa’s biosafety, biosecurity and biotechnology framework is taking so much time to be developed. Nigerian scientists have been unable to come up with any indigenous product. African leaders need to show political will, as well as focus on science and technology.
How many African countries already have biosafety and biosecurity frameworks in place?
Many African countries have laws and institutions in place for biosafety. Recently – and surprisingly – Kenya, one of the trailblazers in the north-east, had a supreme court judgment banning the release of GMOs. Africans tend to be afraid of any new technology and this is where policies, political will and focus come in. Nigeria, on the other hand, is veritable enough to regulate modern biotechnology and its products.
How would you rate your agency’s partnership/relationship with the agencies it regulates?
As a regulator of the sector, our partnership with most of the MDAs in Nigeria has been great. The NBMA has one of the greatest outreaches in the area of partnership, relationship and synergy. We have a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with quite a number of MDAs and we do not carry out any activity without carrying the ministries and departments along.
What are the prospects and expectations from the NBMA in 2023?
What NBMA wants to do this year is to consolidate its achievements and break new ground in modern biotechnology regulation.
What constraints and challenges has the agency faced despite these achievements?
The NBMA believes that nothing is impossible and that it can overcome obstacles and break down barriers. However, funding has been a constraint throughout the agency’s existence. Despite this, the agency has tried to make the most of the limited funds available to achieve much over the years.
Another challenge the agency has faced is propaganda intended to distract it from its mission. Although this was initially a challenge, the agency now recognises that it is a sign of its growing relevance.
The agency has also had to deal with court cases and negative propaganda from those who see it as an obstacle to their interests. Nevertheless, the agency has successfully defended itself in court and continues to promote the use of safe modern biotechnology as a means of enhancing the economy and building a strong nation based on green and bio economies.
As the helmsman of the agency in the last 8 years, what are some of your proudest moments?
I take pride in the existence of this agency with its crop of men and women of high intellect, knowledge and courage who ensure that the sector is regulated. It brings me joy and pride that Nigeria has become the chair of the African Biosafety Regulators Forum.
Our achievements speak for us and I think we are happy [with this]. We have changed what biosafety is all about and now focus on the new biosafety which includes discussing the benefits of the technology. We believe that biotechnology should not be applied negatively and must match safety with the value of the technology. Technology that is unsafe and of no use will not be allowed. We know that the technology has value and we also ensure that safety is a priority.
You mentioned changing the conventional approach to biosafety. Could you elaborate on what that entails?
Indeed, we have transitioned from conventional biosafety to a new approach that emphasizes the benefits of biotechnology, rather than shying away from discussing them. We believe that biotechnology has economic value, and we aim to match safety with the value of the technology. Our priority is to ensure that any technology that is not safe and useful will not be allowed. We recognize the value of the technology, and we make sure that safety is prioritised always.
You also mentioned the lack of GMO products from Africa. What do you think needs to be done to address this issue?
I want to challenge African scientists to do better. Since 1996, the continent has not produced any GM products. We rely on foreign scientists to provide us with genes and products to review. That is not ideal. African scientists need to stand up and apply technology to solve African problems. We need African GMOs/products and the biosafety regulatory agencies are ready to regulate the sector. It is up to the scientists to provide us with products that meet safety standards.