Africa Warns Against COVID-19 Vaccine Wars: Pleads For Fair Distribution


African health officials appeal for more COVID vaccines after current supplies run out in some countries

About 10 African countries have yet to receive any doses of a COVID vaccine, while at least one country, Rwanda, has already run out of the doses that it received through the WHO co-sponsored COVAX facility, said WHO’s African Regional Office on Thursday, citing this as evidence of the vaccine inequalities that continue to mark the battle against the pandemic.  

“It is unfair. I believe that some high income countries are looking to vaccinate their entire populations while others, including most countries in our region, are struggling to reach a significant proportion of at-risk populations,” said Dr Richard Mihigo, Immunization and Vaccines Development Program Coordinator at WHO’s African Regional Office, speaking at a WHO/AFRO press briefing on Thursday.

Under the COVAX initiative, countries are supposed to receive some 20% of their COVID-19 vaccine needs, with the shipment of the doses officially beginning in Accra, Ghana, just weeks ago.  So far, some 7.7 million doses have been administered in 32 African countries through COVAX or national initiatives, the WHO African region officials said.  And some 44 countries have received vaccines through COVAX or other channels.  

At the same time, however, some 10 countries have not received any vaccines at all, and have no idea when the next shipments will be, while other countries are already running out of the doses that they received. 

Rwanda Already Used Its COVAX Vaccine Supplies

Rwanda, for instance,  received about 240,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine through the WHO co-sponsored COVAX Facility on March 3. It received a further 103,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, as the first African country to administer the vaccine that requires ultracold storage. 

But only 20 days after it commenced vaccination, Rwanda has already administered all of its doses. Rwandan government officials said they did not know when the next shipment will be received, especially since the new guidelines that prioritise India and Europe over the rest of the world, delay vaccine deliveries to Africa. Rwanda has a population of about 13 million and needs to vaccinate 7.8 million people to achieve herd immunity.

“When the COVID vaccine was made available, we already had a programme that was built from the community to national level, so we just plugged into the existing system, and that made it easier and faster to make it happen,” said Dr Sabin NSanzimana, director of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre, at the WHO briefing, describing the country’s experience. “And the thing is that, deploying a vaccine rapidly, without waiting is the best way you can actually stop the progression of this virus.”

However, that success has now been tinged with anxiety as Rwanda awaits more vaccine doses to arrive.

And while countries like Rwanda are rapidly and impressively vaccinating their people against COVID-19 with the very limited doses available, they are largely helpless regarding getting additional doses, said Dr John Nkenkasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Speaking at a back-to-back Africa CDC briefing, Nkenkasong urged global leaders to pursue equitable access to vaccines, saying:  “There is absolutely no need, absolutely no need for us as a world, as humanity, to go into a vaccine war to fight this pandemic. We’ll all be losers. 

John Nkenkasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control has appealed for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, saying there was no need for a vaccine war.

“I remain hopeful that the power of humanity will prevail,”  Nkenkasong added, “I strongly believe that we should continue to be our neighbour’s keeper and the only way we do that is to exercise that strong sense of solidarity and coordination and with common wisdom. I remain hopeful that wisdom will prevail over time.”

Worries That Serum Institute Doses Will Be Kept In India or Diverted To  European Union   

Officials also are worried about the news that AstraZeneca vaccine doses produced by the Serum Institute of India, Africa’s main vaccine supplier either directly and through COVAX, may be kept in India or diverted to the European Union. 

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is the main vaccine that African countries are receiving through the COVAX  initiative – as well as through bilateral deals. And most of those doses are produced by the Serum Institute. 

In February, however, Adar Poonawalla, CEO of vaccine producer, Serum Institute of India (SII), announced his company had been directed to prioritise the needs of India, currently undergoing a surge in COVID cases. 

“SII has been directed to prioritise the huge needs of India and along with that balance the needs of the rest of the world. We are trying our best,” Poonawalla said on Twitter 

That was confirmed by a GAVI announcement Thursday, which stated that some 90 million doses due to be supplied to COVAX in March and April may not be delivered – as a result of the Indian government’s decision to divert doses domestically.  

In addition, Africa CDC officials fear that Africa COVID-19 vaccines produced in Europe could also be threatened by new guidelines issued by the European Commission that limit the export of coronavirus vaccines to countries outside the bloc. The guidelines stipulate that the EU countries may curb the exportation of vaccines for six weeks to destinations with fewer COVID cases or higher vaccination rates – although the restrictions explicitly exclude exports to low-income countries that are participating in COVAX. 

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, justified the guidelines and said the world is in the crisis of the century and the commission is not ruling anything out. 

“I’m not ruling out anything for now, because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible. Human lives, civil liberties and also the prosperity of our economy are dependent on that, on the speed of vaccination, on moving forward,” Leyen said.

Threats to Africa’s vaccine plans

Also speaking at today’s briefing, Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development, University College London, supported the call for speedier delivery of vaccines to Africa and said the continent’s plan to vaccinate 60% of its citizens by mid-2022 can only be achieved if there is quick access to doses of the vaccines. 

While expecting access to improve before the end of 2021, Costello said the continent needs to vaccinate about 35% of its citizens before the end of the year and this would require about 800 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

“If you’re going to reach a 60% target of vaccinating the continent by the middle of next year, which I think is the aim, then, in this year, if you want to reach 35% of the African population, you’re going to need 800 million doses. Let’s say the population of Africa is 1.2 billion, you’re probably going to need to vaccinate 727.5 million people by the middle of next year, that’s going to mean you’ll need almost 1.5 billion doses (of Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine), so that’s a huge challenge,” Costello said.

Costello expressed confidence that Africa’s health infrastructure  was adequate to ensure a speedy roll-out if the doses became available. “I’m pretty confident that Africa can get there because I think the immunisation infrastructure in Africa is generally not bad. The figures have come up dramatically over the past 10 or 15 years. I think Africa’s public health structure is often better than Europe, to be honest,” he said.

Earlier this month, Africa CDC also announced plans to hold a major conference in April to discuss the local production of vaccines, as one avenue to address the continent’s vaccine shortages. 

Speaking at the time, William Kwabena Ampofo, Chairperson of African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative, called for a “roadmap” to increase vaccine production that will facilitate immunization of childhood diseases and enable Africa to control outbreaks of highly infectious pathogens


Image Credits: Johnson & Johnson, WHO African Region .

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