As Africa’s COVID-19 Vaccine Supplies Increase Substantially, the Continent Has ‘Moved on’ From Serum Institute of India
Dr Richard Mihigo, WHO Africa Coordinator of Immunization and Vaccine Development,

There has been a substantial increase in COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to Africa in the past four weeks, with around 20 million doses arriving every week at present – but only six countries out of 54 African countries will reach the global target of vaccinating 40% of their population by the end of this year.

This is according to Dr Richard Mihigo, WHO Africa Coordinator of Immunization and Vaccine Development, who said that “millions of people are without protection against COVID-19 and this is simply dangerous and untenable”. 

Most countries had used 60-80% of their allocations, and only two were lagging behind with only 10% of supply used, Mihingo told the regional body’s media briefing on Thursday

However, Mihingo said the WHO, UNICEF and COVAX had appealed to all countries that were donating vaccines to ensure that they were not expiring soon.

“We have seen the issues that have been created by the vaccines that are coming with a very short shelf life, as these pose additional challenges when it comes to the rollout of these vaccines,” he said.

Nigeria faced media criticism this week for destroying one million doses donated from Germany, but it transpired that they had been due to expire within a month of delivery.

Serum Institute of India ‘let Africa down’

In response to the claim from the Serum Institute of India (SII) that it was halving the production of its Astra Zeneca vaccines because of low demand including from Africa, Mihingo pointed out that it was SII that had stopped supplying Africa.

Mihingo said that the SII’s decision to suspend all the export of vaccines to COVAX in April had “created a lot of issues in this region”. 

“Some countries were left without provision of a second dose,” added Mihingo. “In the meantime, countries moved on and looked for alternatives. And if we look at the current pipeline in the COVAX forecasts, this is quite very promising. We are expecting to receive between 800 million to almost one billion doses through COVAX [this year] and this number is going probably to double next year. 

“I think we have now enough vaccines that are going to come through the COVAX mechanisms, and the challenge is now in deploying them,” he added.

Earlier in the day, Dr John Nkengasong, Executive Director of Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said bluntly that the SII had “acted unprofessionally”, let Africa down and created mistrust when it had suspended its vaccine exports despite having committing to supplying African countries via COVAX.

Omicron in 11 African countries

WHO Africa virologist Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi

While 57 countries worldwide have identified the COVID-19 Omicron variant, only 11 of these are in Africa – and only six in southern Africa, which is on the receiving end of travel bans from around 70 countries.

Of the 14 countries in southern African, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zambia have officially notified the World Health Organization (WHO) Africa of the presence of Omicron, and Zimbabwe is also expected to confirm the variant’s presence, said WHO virologist Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi. 

Mozambique has also reported cases, according to the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Gumede-Moeletsi added that around 50 of the 55 African member states had the ability to do genome sequencing of viruses themselves.

A regional genomic sequencing laboratory based in South Africa is currently supporting the 14 southern African countries and has increased its samples sequenced to 5000 every month.

However, the continent has experienced a 88% increase in COVID-19 cases in the past week, with 79% of these new cases coming from southern Africa followed by 14% in the northern region, according to the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We are watching the situation in South Africa very carefully and over the past seven days,  we have seen a major increase in the number of cases, almost 255% increase in the number of cases.. And an almost 12% increase in hospitalisations,” said Mihingo.

“Encouragingly emerging data from South Africa suggests that Omicron may cause less severe disease,” he added, with only 6.3% of ICU cases being related to COVID-19 cases.

Africa collaborates on genome sequencing

WHO head of operational partnerships Dr Thierno Balde

Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Senegal and Tunisia have also confirmed the presence of Omicron.

Professor Christian Happi, Director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, said that a “handful” of Omicron cases had been detected in Nigeria but the country was not experiencing a surge.

Happi’s centre is providing laboratory training in genomic sequencing to 16 other African countries.

Describing Africa’s genome sequencing ability as “very robust although not consistent in all countries”, Happi said there were also centres of excellence in Ghana and Senegal.

“What is beautiful about what is happening during this pandemic is that there is strong cooperation among African countries. We are collaborating, and we’re supporting all African countries,” said Happi.

Condemning the travel bans against African countries that had detected Omicron, WHO head of operational partnerships, Dr Thierno Balde, appealed to countries to “apply the International National Health regulations, especially by implementing the scientific evidence-based interventions at the point of entries” rather than travel bans.

He said some countries appeared to be reconsidering their “hasty and emotional” decisions, and the WHO hoped to see the reversal of the travel bans that were having a serious economic impact on countries.

Happi described Canada’s refusal to accept PCR tests from South Africa for its citizens travelling back from that country, as “ridiculous”.

“If Canada is accepting the existence of Omicron that was detected in South Africa, then it’s ridiculous for them not to accept testing from that country. It is not only discriminated but very ridiculous,” said Happi.


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