By Mike Mwaniki
The World Health Organisation has warned that Africa is in danger of being left behind in accessing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines even as countries in other regions strike bilateral deals, driving up prices.
Experts say by January 20, 2021, for example, 40 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in 50 mostly high-income countries. However, in Africa, Guinea was the sole low-income nation which had provided vaccines and to date, these have only been administered to 25 people.
Seychelles, which is a high-income country, is the only one on the continent to start a national vaccination campaign. The WHO Regional Director (Africa), Dr Matshidiso Moeti said vaccine hoarding will only prolong the ordeal and delay Africa’s recovery.
“It is deeply unjust that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while lower-risk groups in rich countries are made safe,” said Dr Moeti.
The COVAX Facility, which is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and WHO has secured 2 billion doses of vaccine from five producers, with options for over 1 billion more doses.
The GAVI Managing Director (Country Programmes), Thabani Maphosa, said COVAX is on track to start delivering vaccine doses and begin ensuring global access to vaccines.
“This massive international undertaking has been made possible thanks to donations work towards dosesharing deals and deals with manufacturers that have brought us to almost 2 billion doses secured.
We look forward to rolling out in the coming weeks.” In Africa, the coalition has committed to vaccinating at least 20 per cent of the population by the end of 2021 by providing a maximum of 600 million doses based on two doses per individual disbursed in phases.
An initial 30 million doses are expected to start arriving in countries by March to cover 3 per cent the of the general population, prioritizing mainly healthcare workers and other priority groups and then expanding to cover additional vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
Most of the doses are expected to arrive in the second half of the year. These timelines and quantities could change if candidate vaccines fail to meet regulatory approval or production, delivery and funding face challenges.
In Kenya, for example, the Health Ministry’s acting Director-General, Dr Patrick Amoth announced in December that the country had ordered 24 million COVID-19 doses from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and identified frontline health workers as the first to be vaccinated followed by the vulnerable and elderly.
At the same time, while visiting Kenya on January 20 2021, British Foreign minister Dominic Raab said Britain was helping Kenya prepare to roll-out the COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Kenya expects the delivery of the shots to start in the second week of February 2021. According to the WHO vaccine introduction readiness assessment tool, African nations are on average 42 per cent ready for their mass-vaccination campaigns, which is an improvement on the starting point of 33 per cent two months ago.
However, there is still a long way to go to reach the desired benchmark of 80 per cent. As the largest vaccine buyer in the world, procuring more than 2 billion doses annually for routine immunisation and outbreak response on behalf of nearly 100 countries, UNICEF is coordinating and supporting the procurement, international freight and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines for the COVAX Facility.
This is the biggest, most sophisticated ground operation in the history of immunisation. UNICEF is stockpiling one billion syringes and buying 10 million safety boxes so that used syringes and needles can be disposed of safely by personnel at health facilities, thus preventing the risk of injuries and bloodborne diseases.
T h e U N I C E F Eastern and Southern A f r i c a R e g i o n a l Director, Mohamed Fall said UNICEF has put in place a global network of freight forwarders and logistics providers to deliver vaccines as quickly and safely as possible as part of this historic and mammoth operation.
“This invaluable collaboration will ensure that we have enough transport capacity in place for delivering COVID-19 vaccine doses, syringes and safety boxes to the front-line workers who ultimately protect the millions of children who depend on their vital services.”
All the 54 countries on the continent have expressed interest in the COVAX Facility. Eight higher and middle-income countries will self-finance their participation, while lower-middle-income and low-income countries will access the vaccines at no cost through the Facility.
The vaccines distributed by COVAX will have received WHO Emergency Use Listing authorisation and as such will have undergone stringent validation of their safety and effectiveness. However, vaccine nationalism is threatening the COVAX initiative.
The COVAX initiative has raised $6 billion in pledges but needs an additional $2.8 billion in 2021 and WHO and partners are urging countries and donors to contribute and help end the pandemic globally. Dr Moeti spoke during a virtual press conference held on January 21, 2021, where she was joined by Maphosa and Fall.