US and Africa Plan to Harness PEPFAR Networks to Increase COVID Vaccine Uptake
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

CAPE TOWN – The US and Africa intend to use the well-established community networks supported by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to improve the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in Africa.  The initaitive would build upon the infrastructure developed since PEPFAR entered as a major player on the African AIDS scene in 2003. 

In addition, USAID has launched an initiative called Global VAX to support the World Health Organization (WHO) target of vaccinating 70% of the world’s population by mid-year against COVID-19, and will soon be announcing priority countries in Africa.

This is according to US State official Mary Beth Goodman, who briefed African journalists on Tuesday on the COVID-19 Global Action Meeting convened by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday.

“We’re leveraging opportunities through things like PEPFAR, which has an extraordinary network across the African continent in combating HIV/AIDS and has a network of community workers and leaders who are helping to work with us to also talk about some of the importance of COVID,” said Goodman, who is Acting Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security at the US Department of State.

“The same is true of our Presidential Malaria Initiative and other efforts that have long been in place on the continent.

“We actually have launched through USAID and the Centre for Disease Control, a programme that we’re calling Global VAX,” added Goodman. 

“The effort behind Global Vax is all about the uptake issues. How do we turn vaccines into vaccinations? How do we connect the dots to make sure that we are getting these vaccines distributed in a way that allows more people to have the opportunity to take the vaccine and that allows some of these countries which are lagging to meet the 70% target?”

Blinken’s six-point ‘GAP’ plan

Ghana, Africa
Ghanian health worker Evelyn Narkie Dowuona holds up her COVID-19 vaccination card.

Blinken presented a six-point COVID-19 Prioritized Global Action Plan for Enhanced Engagement (GAP) to foreign ministers and senior leaders from countries and international organizations invited to his virtual meeting.

“Together, we identified urgent gaps in response activities and aligned around specific roles to advance global efforts aimed at bringing this pandemic under control and strengthening readiness for future global health threats. We agreed that more political leadership is needed to save lives and end this pandemic cycle in 2022,” said Blinken in a statement issued late Monday.

He identified the “six lines of the global effort to respond to acute pandemic needs” as:

  • Getting Shots in Arms: coordinated efforts to improve vaccine readiness and logistics, in step with increased donations and procurement, toward the goal of at least 70% of the population fully vaccinated with quality, safe, and effective vaccines by September 2022. 
  • Bolstering Supply Chain Resilience: mechanisms to facilitate sufficient and steady supplies of critical products and materials to break this cycle of the COVID-19 pandemic, including establishing mechanisms to identify and remove medical supply chain bottlenecks.
  • Addressing Information Gaps: global efforts to enhance vaccine confidence and combat the spread of false information, enlisting regional champions and medical, civil society, young people, and faith leaders to use evidence-based, accurate, locally relevant messaging.
  • Supporting Health Workers: protecting the health, safety, and wellbeing of frontline health workers, including the need to improve their training and numbers to effectively support the COVID-19 response.
  • Ensuring Acute Non-Vaccine Interventions, including the provision of therapeutics, testing regimes, and oxygen where needed most.
  • Strengthening Global Health Security Architecture to end the current pandemic and. secure future preparedness for health emergencies at the national, regional and global level.

Blinken also announced a direct donation of 5 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine to the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), the African Union’s vaccine procurement and distribution effort. The US has now donated more than 155 million doses to Africa and 435 million doses worldwide.

Praise for Uganda vaccine effort

Ugandan Health Minister Dr Jane Ruth Aceng (left) and French Ambassador to Uganda Jules-Armand Aniambossou with donated AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines.

In his address to the GAP meeting, Blinken praised Uganda for its massive vaccination effort in November and December last year as an example of what is possible.

“In early November, only 14% of all Ugandan adults had received their first dose of the vaccine,” said Blinken.

“Then a major team effort commenced. The Ugandan government led a mass vaccination campaign, carried out by hundreds of health care workers,” he added, and “by late December, almost half of all adults in Uganda had received their first shot – from 14 to 47% in just six weeks”.

Participants in the GAP meeting included  Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany,  India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia,  Senegal, South Africa,Spain, UK, the African Union/Africa Centres for Disease Control, the European Commission, and the WHO.

They have all committed to coordinating parts of the six key areas identified.

Meanwhile, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the meeting that “in some countries, high vaccine coverage, combined with the lower severity of Omicron, is driving a false narrative that the pandemic is over”.

However, the low vaccine coverage and low testing rates in other countries “are creating the ideal conditions for new variants to emerge”, warned Tedros, adding that 116 countries are off track to vaccinate 70% of the population by the middle of this year.

“We can bring the pandemic under control this year – but we are at increased risk of squandering that opportunity,” said Tedros, adding that “in many countries, the issues are not primarily a problem of absorptive capacity. We need to urgently support political leaders to accelerate the rollout of vaccines”.

Image Credits: WHO, Health Journalist Network.

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