Nigerians have expressed fears following confirmation by the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 on Tuesday that some incoming air travellers presented fake COVID-19 test certificates and that about 40 per cent of arriving passengers tested positive for the virus.
Some experts are afraid the situation may become like the yellow fever card scam that went on for years. They said the situation could get worse unless the PTF and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) increase the test sites to include public laboratories for passengers travelling outside the country.
The Director General of the Nigerian Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba, Lagos, Prof. Babatunde Salako, told The Guardian if the situation was not well monitored, there might be “emergence of fake certificates akin to the yellow card saga.”
He expressed the need for government institutions to be allowed to conduct tests for travellers under a public-private arrangement to ensure that regions without private laboratories would not suffer.
“We need to review the policy around travel and COVID-19 test,” he suggested. But the NCDC, yesterday, moved to douse the tension, assuring Nigerians that the agency, in conjunction with the PTF on COVID-19 and other stakeholders, were striving to prevent resurgence of coronavirus cases due to the resumption of international flights.
The centre also denied allegations of fraudulent tests for air travellers even as it said five per cent of passengers that arrived in Nigeria tested positive within 14 days of arrival.
The Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, dismissed reports that there were about 40 per cent cases despite new restrictions on international flights. He, however, refused to comment on concerns about fake COVID-19 test certificates.
Ihekweazu, who is also an epidemiologist, told The Guardian: “Firstly, there is no data to show that 40 per cent of travellers that returned since the resumption of international travel have COVID-19. This is simply wrong.
“The PTF-COVID-19 has made the repeat test in Nigeria mandatory to reduce the risk of spike in cases as we resume international flights. The international travel portal, which we have developed, is to enable us to track the number of travellers into the country and ensure the required tests and follow-up are carried out.
“ It is very important everyone coming into Nigeria adheres to the measures in place so we can all protect ourselves and prevent influx of COVID-19 cases in Nigeria.”
The National Coordinator, PTF-COVID-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu, had at an interactive session with the Joint Senate Committees on Health and Aviation, on Tuesday, claimed that international travellers from some countries had been presenting fake Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) results on their COVID-19 status to enter Nigeria.
Aliyu, who is also a former Director General of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), complained that some passengers presented negative COVID-19 PCR results but later tested positive for the disease. He said test results presented by the passengers couldn’t be trusted.
The NCDC, in a statement, yesterday, said its attention had been drawn to a report published in a daily newspaper, not The Guardian, on September 14, 2020, with the title: ‘Fraud Rocks NCDC COVID-19 Tests For Air Travellers.’
The Centre noted: “This report is simply incorrect and based on information that is inconsistent with the truth. In addition, no attempt was made to contact the NCDC on this matter before the newspaper went to press. This article is an unfortunate misrepresentation of efforts by government ministries and agencies, to enable safe travel in the context of pandemic affecting every country in the world.
“The decision to make repeat tests mandatory in Nigeria is based on a review of data by NCDC and PTF-COVID-19. The goal is to find the right balance between protecting Nigeria from more infections, while supporting the restart of international travel. From May till August 2020, evacuation and emergency flights were allowed into the country following an initial restriction on international flights.”
According to the NCDC, of the number of people who returned to Nigeria, five per cent tested positive within 14 days of arrival, lamenting many flouted self-isolation guidance on return.
“Based on this data and the current capacity in Nigeria, it was decided that all travellers to Nigeria must be tested after seven days of return to the country. This was to enable early detection and to reduce the risk of further transmission of the disease,” it noted.
The NCDC said it had activated public health laboratories for COVID-19 in Nigeria as of September 14, 2020 and the laboratories are for public health purposes, providing free tests for the public.
MEANWHILE, foreign airlines yesterday dismissed allegations of airlifting travellers with fake COVID-19 test certificates into the country. According to them, they followed the COVID-19 protocols.
A station manager told The Guardian: “I can tell you we all (airlines) are always on the lookout for certificates from government-approved centres only. So, if such documents are found to be faulty or does not reflect the travellers’ true state of health, how is that the fault of the airlines?
“Unfortunately, governments don’t seem to have agreements on some of these protocols. Some of the centres approved by Nigerian government for tests may be different from those acceptable in the UK, and vice versa. That is why we are asking for harmonised protocols for everyone to be on the same page,” he said.
The President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Susan Akporiaye, advised aviation authorities to harmonise safety protocols to avoid doubts in certificates.
Akporiaye observed that some Nigeria-bound travellers in the United Kingdom were still in distress over conflicting travel protocols. While Nigeria has directed that inbound passengers must have a recent COVID-19 test certificate before boarding, the UK is not giving preference to COVID-19 tests for travel purposes but for medical needs and signs of sickness. Many healthy travellers are without the certificate, hence, unable to fly.