Africa Expects Fewer COVID-19 Vaccines from COVAX & Battles Hesitancy in Absence of Vaccinated Role Models
Ethiopia vaccines
AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine arrive at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March.

As Africa prepares to get even fewer COVID-19 vaccines than expected in the coming months thanks to the supply shortage at COVAX, the continent is also battling with vaccine hesitancy – exacerbated by the lack of vaccinated role models.

Africa could receive 155 million fewer vaccines than expected this year from the global vaccine platform, COVAX, which announced on Wednesday that it has had to cut its supply forecast by 25% as it has been affected by export bans, particularly from India, bilateral deals between manufacturers and countries, production challenges and delays in vaccine regulatory approval. (COVAX had previously said it will provide 520 million doses to the WHO Afro region by the end of the year.)

As a result, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Africa, the continent would have to continue to rely on economically crippling lockdowns, and other public health prevention measures instead of vaccinations to control the pandemic.

However, Moeti also conceded that the continent was facing vaccine hesitancy in some countries, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – which is also battling a meningitis outbreak.

“It’s true that vaccine rejection, denial, has been a strong feature of the response in the DRC,” Moeti told a WHO Africa media briefing on Thursday. 

“The demand was so little that the country, at some point had to redistribute some vaccine supplies that it had been provided for to other countries.

“Some surveys have shown that [vaccine hesitancy] has started to shift in other countries as the vaccines have been rolled out more and more people are interested now in getting vaccinated,” she added.

This was partly because people who have already been vaccinated can act as “role  models” to show that vaccines are safe, can prevent severe illness and death, she said.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, head of the World Health Organization Africa region.

Only 20 African countries may reach 10% target this month

But vaccinated Africans currently make up a tiny minority.

“As of today, Africa as a whole has received around 138 million doses only,” said Dr Richard Mihigo, WHO’s Program Area Manager for Immunisation.

 “Only around 40 million people have received the two doses that are required to be fully vaccinated, and this represents merely 3% of the African population.When you look at sub-Saharan Africa, it’s around 1.7%,” added Mihigo.

Fewer than 20 out of the 54 African countries were likely to reach the WHO target of 10% of their population vaccinated by the end of this month, he added.

However, Mihigo said that despite the COVAX shortfall, vaccine supply was fluid and the continent could still get the vaccines it needed to vaccinate 40% of Africans by the end of the year, WHO’s next target.

Meanwhile, Moeti stressed that increasing vaccine supply was the biggest priority for the country.

She noted that while COVAX had recently supplied around five million vaccines to Africa, three times as many doses – 15 million had been thrown away in the US due to wastage.

“This is enough vaccines to cover everyone over 18 years in Liberia, Mauritania, and the Gambia,” she observed. “Every dose is precious and has the potential to save a life.”

She noted that, while high-income countries have pledged to share one billion doses globally, and so far 120 million doses have been released.

Prioritize vaccine equity

“Manufacturers are now producing 1.5 billion COVID vaccine doses globally each month, and two billion doses are required to reach 40% of people in every country. If producing countries and companies prioritise vaccine equity, this pandemic, can be over quickly,” she noted.

However instead, COVAX had announced that its shipment forecast for the rest of the year had been revised downwards by 25% “in part because of the prioritisation of bilateral deals over international solidarity”, she said. 

“G20 Health Ministers this week expressed their support for the global 40% vaccination target. This goodwill needs to be accompanied by concrete actions and financing for the global fight against COVID-19, to succeed,” she added.

Image Credits: UNICEF, WHO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.