WHO Africa Chief Warns that COVID-19 Booster Shots Threaten Continent’s Ability to Fight the Pandemic
COVID booster vaccines have gained traction in several countries – US, Israel, Germany, UK, and others, but low- and middle-income countries lag significantly behind in shots.

As the Delta variant spreads across Africa and with the anticipation of a fourth COVID-19 wave later this year, the World Health Organization’s Africa head has called out rich countries that are now offering booster vaccine shots – even as much of the continent’s population waits for their chance at the first shot.

WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, on Tuesday warned that moves by some wealthy countries to introduce booster shots threaten the African continent’s ability to fight the devastating pandemic. Richer countries should share their vaccine supplies with low-income countries instead of hoarding the drugs, she told delegates at the 71st Session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa’s virtual meeting on public health in Africa.

The COVID-19 vaccine roll-out had demonstrated the huge gaps in international solidarity, said Moeti. “We believe the priority should be for the most oppressed populations in all countries to be fully vaccinated. To have the greatest impact in curbing transmission, saving lives, and bringing about an end to this pandemic, as quickly as possible,” she said, adding that 75% of vaccine doses globally had been administered in just 10 countries.

The United States, Israel, United Kingdom and Germany are among a growing number of wealthy countries planning to offer COVID-19 booster shots to their populations from September. This, at a time when some of the world’s poorer nations are struggling to get even one jab of the life-saving vaccines into their peoples’ arms. 

“High-income countries have administered 62 times more doses than low-income countries, potentially worsening this divide,” warned Moeti, stressing that: “We’ve advocated for wealthy countries to share their doses.”

Moeti was echoing the call by WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who last week again fiercely denounced the booster policies. “The divide between the haves and have nots will only grow larger if manufacturers and leaders prioritize booster shots oversupply to low- and middle-income countries,” Dr Tedros said.

The director-general had previously warned that diverting global vaccine supplies to boosters could foster the spread of dangerous variants in vaccine-poor countries elsewhere.

Africa’s vaccine roll-out lagging behind

Matshidiso Moeti, Regional Director of the WHO Regional Office for Africa

Dr Tedros, who also addressed the meeting, said he was concerned that only four countries in Africa had reached the targeted vaccination of at least 10% of their populations. Globally, some 140 countries have already reached this target.

“I don’t need to tell you that the distribution of vaccines has been terribly unfair. More than 4.8 billion doses of vaccine have been administered globally. Just 87 million doses have been administered in the African region – less than 2 % of the global total.” Dr Tedros said.

More than 44 million doses have been distributed to 40 African countries through the global vaccine-sharing facility, COVAX.

“We have also made progress towards increasing production in Africa, through the recent establishment of a technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines in South Africa, and through our work with many countries including Rwanda & Senegal to boost local production.” Dr. Tedros said.

More than 5.4 million COVID-19 cases have been reported from the African region, and about 130,000 deaths reported.  “We know that these numbers are under-reported.” Dr Tedros added.

Currently, the Delta variant is present in 44 African countries, the Beta in 39, Delta in 30, and Gamma in four.

Africa’s COVID-19 challenges and proposed actions

Governments on the African continent have faced several challenges since the start of the pandemic last year, said WHO’s Regional Emergency Director Dr Abdou Salam Gueye.  These include the lack of multi-sectoral coordination of the pandemic response, weak health systems, limited funding, low public awareness, and low vaccination rates, and vaccine hesitancy.

Added to this was the misinformation at all levels, including political leadership, health workers, and communities, which Gueye said made “the work harder”.

Most shockingly, according to Gueye, is that many African countries are not clear about which variant they are dealing with due to, among other, poor genomic sequencing technology, gaps in surveillance, and data and information management.

“Critical data was not sufficiently shared and used and GIS capabilities are not explored,” said Gueye.

Other challenges include concerns over the negative effects of COVID-19 vaccines, low public trust in leadership, and the negative impact of social media on preventative measures.

WHO AFRO has however proposed specific action to deal with the challenges which include advocating for local vaccine production, increasing vaccine doses beyond existing programs, and ensuring that operational funding from multilateral development banks is available for vaccination programs.

Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic

Matshidiso Moeti, Regional Director of the WHO Regional Office for Africa

On Tuesday Moeti  emphasised the need to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and called for significant resources to be dedicated to research, development, and innovation.

“COVID-19 presents both an opportunity and a stark warning of the need to rethink systems that reinforce justices, and to invest more in building a healthier, fairer world,” she said.

Stressing the importance of sharing both the knowledge gained and the benefits to “protect the world”, Moeti said: “Promising homegrown solutions have emerged, and more needs to be done to test harness, and promote these globally, including African traditional medicines and digital technologies.”

She also called on the continent to ramp up local production of essential medical supplies, including vaccines, and for increased investment in health systems that have for decades been underfunded.

This year’s Regional Committee focuses on ways to scale up the COVID-19 response, renew the efforts to end all forms of polio, eliminate cervical cancer as well as enhance the use of health technologies. The meeting which is being held over three days until August 26 will also discuss measures to improve healthy ageing on the continent as well as reinforcing the fight against tuberculosis, HIV, sexually transmitted infections and hepatitis, and defeating meningitis by 2030 among other key health priorities.

Image Credits: Marco Verch/Flickr.

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