Tanzania Joins COVAX Vaccine Facility as Africa Enters Deadly COVID-19 Third Wave 
WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti has warned that unless Africa gets more COVID-19 vaccines immediately, the third wave the continent is currently experiencing will be deadlier than the first two waves.

Tanzania, which for months denied the existence of COVID-19 until vaccine-sceptic President John Magufuli finally succumbed to the virus in March – is now trying to belatedly join the WHO co-sponsored COVAX facility to acquire COVID vaccines. The news comes as the African continent experiences a deadly third wave of COVID-19 infections – affecting eastern and southern Africa in particular.

In a press briefing on Thursday, World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said that WHO is now working with the country to prepare a COVID-19 vaccine deployment plan – which is a major prerequisite to securing vaccine doses from the COVAX facility. 

“These are the preliminary steps to receive vaccines through COVAX, and we are expecting the vaccines to arrive in the country in the next couple of weeks,” said Richard Mihigo, Immunisation and Vaccines Development Programme Coordinator at WHO’s Regional Office for Africa at the briefing.

Tanzania has not requested any specific vaccines, but like other countries accessing doses through COVAX, it will be able to procure vaccines that have been issued with WHO’s Emergency Use Listing, the WHO officials said.

Beyond approaching COVAX for vaccine donations, the new government of Tanzania, led by President Samia Suluhu Hassan, has also made moves to raise funds to finance vaccine purchases, including approaches to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan of $US 574 million.

The IMF has however demanded that the government first update its data on the transmission of the SARS CoV2 virus in the country.  Data on new virus cases and related deaths has not been reported since May 2020 – after the late Magufuli ordered health authorities to stop tracking cases of the disease. 

“When applying for pandemic-related emergency financing, evidence of the pandemic has to be available to substantiate the claim,” the IMF’s resident representative, Jens Reinke was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Africa’s Third Wave Could Be More Deadly Than The First Two Waves

Tanzania’s appeal for the lifesaving vaccines comes as the African continent experiences a third wave of the pandemic with Tunisia, South Africa and other southern and eastern African neighbors seeing sharp spikes in cases over the past few weeks.  Even countries such as Rwanda, which have remained “green” with very low COVID transmission, are now at risk of becoming “orange”.

South Africa on Wednesday recorded 13 246 new cases, with the percent testing positive increased to 21.7%, while Tunisia has seen one of the highest rates of new cases daily on the continent, per million people. 

Moeti warned that the continent’s third wave is gaining pace and is nearing the first wave’s peak of more than 120,000 weekly cases recorded in July 2020.

“Africa is in the midst of a full blown third wave. The sobering trajectory of surging cases should rouse everyone into urgent action. We’ve seen in India and elsewhere just how quickly COVID-19 can rebound and overwhelm health systems. So, public health measures must be scaled up fast to find, test, isolate and care for patients and to quickly trace their contacts,” Moeti said.

According to WHO data, new COVID-19 cases rose to over 116,500 in the week ending on 13 June, up from the previous week’s nearly 91,000 cases. This was after a month period of more gradual increases in case numbers that pushed the continent over the 5 million case mark. In 22 African countries, cases rose by over 20% within the same period while deaths also spiked by nearly 15% to over 2200 across 36 countries.

African countries are recording a surge in COVID-19 cases with South Africa registering 13 246 new cases on June 16.

Rwanda, which has a population of some 12.6 million people has seen a spike in new cases rising to 263 on 16 June.  That remains low in comparison to many European countries, but still of concern for the country that saw only 45 new cases daily at the start of the month.  That means the country is now approaching the all-time  peak of its second wave, of January 2021, when some 334 new cases daily were recorded.  

A Rwandan cabinet meeting on 12 June, resolved to shut down all business activities by 8pm, with residents under curfew from 9pm to 5am. Prevsiously, a curfew was in place only between 10pm to 4am.

At a separate press briefing on Thursday, Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa CDC, said that a total of 15 African countries are now experiencing the third wave of the pandemic while Tunisia is already in a fourth wave.

Both Nkengasong and Moeti attributed the spike in new cases to, among other reasons, poor adherence to transmission prevention measures, including non-compliance with social distancing – which has made it difficult to suppress the spread of the pandemic.

The surge also coincides with colder seasonal weather in southern Africa, even as more contagious variants spread. The Delta variant (originally identified in India) has been reported in 14 African countries while the Alpha and Beta variants (originally identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa) have been found in more than 25 African countries.

“We expect the number of African countries in the third wave of the pandemic to increase,”  said Nkegasong. “What is very characteristic of this wave is that the peak of the third wave is normally higher than the peak of the second wave, and is more severe than the previous wave.”

Vaccines Needed Sooner Than Promised Donations Will Arrive 

Africa needs more COVID-19 vaccines immediately if the continent wants to curb the third wave.

Several initiatives have been announced to make more doses of vaccines available to African countries, including a one billion vaccine dose donation by the G7 to poorer countries and a  $US 1.5-billion COVID-19 vaccine procurement partnership between Africa CDC and the MasterCard Foundation. The U.S. government has also promised to donate 500 million doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine to support vaccine rollout in several low- and middle-income countries. And the potential inclusion of made-in-China COVID-19 vaccines into the COVAX Facility is also on the table. \

But Moeti and Nkengasong stressed that the continent needs vaccines even faster than those promised donations – while national governments need to step up vaccination of doses already received.

Seven African countries have already used 100% of the vaccines they received through COVAX and seven more have administered over 80% of available vaccines. On the other hand, some 23 African countries have used less than half of the doses they received so far, including about 1.25 million AstraZeneca doses on hand in 18 countries that must be used by the end of August to avoid expiration. 

“The rise in cases and deaths is an urgent wake up call for those countries lagging behind to rapidly expand vaccination sites, to reach priority groups for vaccination and to respond to community concerns. A number of African countries have shown that they can move vaccines quickly, so while we welcome the recent international vaccine pledges, if we are to curb the third wave, Africa needs doses here and now,” said Moeti.

Image Credits: Our World in Data.

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