Accelerating COVID-19 testing in Nigeria — from Ilorin to Leeds and back

Visiting researcher, Dr Oluwapelumi Adeyemi, used his University of Leeds connections to establish a new diagnostic laboratory that has carried out over 1,100 COVID-19 tests in Nigeria.

Dr Oluwapelumi Adeyemi wearing a white lab coat and blue gloves holding a beaker with liquid in it
Dr Oluwapelumi Adeyemi

When the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a pandemic in March 2020, Dr Oluwapelumi Adeyemi was running the only molecular biology laboratory in the University of Ilorin, in Kwara State in north-central Nigeria. The laboratory could conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis, but not at the speed needed for COVID-19 diagnosis. Thanks to Dr Adeyemi’s connections with the University of Leeds, that was soon to change.

Dr Adeyemi gained his PhD from the University of Leeds in 2017. After this, he was employed as a post-doctoral fellow, funded by the UK’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) at the University of Leeds.

He then went on to set up his own laboratory at the University of Ilorin, where he focused his research on acute gastroenteritis, the leading cause of mortality in Nigeria in children under five years old.

Dr Adeyemi recalls:

“When the pandemic hit, there was no other facility in Kwara State that could do PCR tests and samples were being sent to neighbouring states, about 200km away. Although our laboratory couldn’t process samples as fast as was really needed, we still offered to help straight away.

Working together to fund faster test results

Dr Adeyemi realised that his connection with the University of Leeds could enable him and his colleagues to speed up the testing process.

He had remained a visiting researcher at Leeds and returned from time to time to design biological reagents — diagnostic tools needed for his research — which were hard to source in Nigeria.

He contacted his former PhD supervisor and BBSRC host at the University of Leeds, Professor Nicola Stonehouse and, together, they successfully applied to the Global Challenges Research Fund to support a diagnostic real-time PCR machine for his lab in Nigeria.

Dr Adeyemi remembers:

“Unilorin — as we call the University of Ilorin — was really pleased, and immediately asked me to work with other committee members on an application for separate, federal funding to create a proper diagnostic facility.

We were awarded that funding too and the Unilorin Molecular Diagnostic and Research Laboratory was built from scratch around the new PCR machine and officially opened in June 2021.

The Laboratory has completed substantial PCR testing for Kwara State, carrying out over 1,100 tests between June 2021 and January 2022. In collaboration with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), it continues to sequence samples to identify different COVID-19 variants in circulation in Kwara State.

Dr Adeyemi was appointed as Assistant Director of the Laboratory — a rare honour for a researcher just a few years after completing his PhD.

A close up image of someone holding a COVID-19 test wearing a blue lab coat and white gloves
A researcher handling a COVID-19 test

New discoveries about life-threatening conditions

Although COVID-19 testing has kept them busy, Dr Adeyemi and his colleagues have continued the research they begun before the pandemic, including the work on gastroenteritis.

Early findings from tests on children admitted to emergency departments in Ilorin indicate that over 80 percent of cases of gastroenteritis are caused by viruses but are not treated as such.

Dr Adeyemi and his colleagues have also been researching the O’nyong’nyong virus (ONNV) which causes similar symptoms to the endemic disease, malaria.

Their initial analysis of hospital records shows that, although most patients attending outpatient departments with a high fever are generally treated for malaria, up to 60 percent of cases may be a result of other causes, such as ONNV.

An international asset

The Molecular Diagnostic and Research Laboratory enables Unilorin to take part in major international studies, including co-ordinating the Nigerian arm of a study looking for biomarkers for prostate cancer in African men.

The Laboratory also runs training for postgraduate students and researchers in molecular biology techniques and has linked up with a company in the UK to assess a novel molecular biology reagent.

Dr Adeyemi explains:

“The Laboratory has been an important resource for Kwara State and Nigeria during the pandemic, but it’s also been a major asset for Unilorin, because it’s opened the University up to a wider network of national and international scientific collaborators.

We are working nationally with the NCDC as a part of the wider African hub on SARS-COV-2 surveillance in Africa, and now Unilorin researchers are involved in international proposals with the University of Leeds for the surveillance of other enteric viruses (viruses transmitted primarily by the fecal-oral route or by contaminated water and food).”

Of course, the other asset for Unilorin has been Dr Adeyemi himself, who has acted as a conduit, taking the knowledge he gained at the University of Leeds back to Nigeria to set up the Laboratory, which is now training so many others and strengthening the research capacity there.

Dr Adeyemi is now a research scientist at the Pirbright Institute in the UK, researching coronaviruses. But the collaborations he’s built between the global north and south will continue. He will still be a part of the ONNV and acute gastroenteritis studies in Unilorin and his links with the University of Leeds remain, in the collaborations he’s helped to establish and in his role as a visiting researcher.

Professor Nicola Stonehouse and Dr Oluwapelumi Adeyemi

Dr Oluwapelumi Adeyemi is a researcher at the University of Ilorin, a research scientist at the Pirbright Institute and a visiting researcher in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology the University of Leeds.

Professor Nicola Stonehouse is a Professor in Molecular Virology in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Leeds.

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The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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