The shortage, stockpiling and slow deployment of Covid-19 vaccines means the pandemic is far from over for the continent. Where do the poorer countries stand?
Computer engineer David Osei recalls how he passionately argued with his friends when they debated whether getting the Covid-19 vaccines was a smart idea or not six months ago. Osei believed it was not. His argument at that time was that there was a wider conspiracy going on where wealthy nations would trial non-tested doses on people in developing countries.
“I said it was too quick to create a vaccine for a disease that was still developing and no one knew how it would turn out. In fact, I still had my doubts about whether Covid was real or not,” recalls Osei.
But then Covid-19 took the lives of two of his closest friends and his fiancé within the space of a month. Now, he has joined the rush to get vaccinated in Ghana. The problem is, there are not enough vaccines for him and millions of Africans on the continent.
“I believe it is important to protect ourselves as nobody knows how things will turn out tomorrow. I am afraid of how bad things can get for everyone,” says Osei.
According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the continent has now received more than 103 million Covid-19 vaccine doses with about 70% of these vaccines already distributed. However, this accounts for just 1.7% of the African population. For that number to reach 10%, the World Health Organization (WHO) says the continent needs another 183 million more doses by the end of 2021.
“More than half of the vaccines that have been received so far in Africa is through bilateral donations from other wealthy countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. So yet again, Africa is now relegated to depending on donations and the charity of developed economies to save lives.”
Dr Ngozi Okonko-Iweala, the newly-appointed Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in a recent FORBES AFRICA interview highlighted the importance of African nations receiving vaccinations on time so as not to get left behind as in pandemics of the past such as H1N1.
To ensure this doesn’t happen again to Africa, Okonjo-Iweala and her team have developed the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) accelerator with the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to look at vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for impoverished countries.
Within this framework, the organization has also developed the Covax facility, which is the vaccines pillar of the ACT accelerator to make vaccines available to poor countries.
But this has not gone exactly according to plan. For one, wealthier countries had already signed multi-million dollar deals with manufacturers for vaccines as early as July 2020 while they were still in development and undergoing trials.
“Big pharma will always prioritize those who have money to pay and unfortunately that means that the Covax scheme will never get the required doses they need until those who have deeper pockets are
serviced. Africa was always going to be playing catch-up to these vaccines,” says Dr Jason Lamptey, a pulmonologist operating in Ghana.
These deep-pocketed countries have vaccinated over 40% of their population, while Africa, with an estimated population of over 1.3 billion people, has only managed to vaccinate about 2% of the population, according to the WHO.
The WHO is now reviewing its vaccination targets for Africa estimating that nine out of 10 African countries will not manage to inoculate 10% of their populations by September, according to a report published by the BBC.
“Why are some states stock-piling the few vaccines we have until they expire and we have to destroy them when there are people who urgently need it?”
Under the Covax program, which started in February, the goal was to deliver some 520 million doses to Africa by the end of 2021. These vaccines were initially acquired from the Serum Institute of India but that plan went sideways when India stopped vaccination export due to the devastating effects of the pandemic in the country. The effect of this has led to a reported shortage of 225 million vaccine doses.
“More than half of the vaccines that have been received so far in Africa is through bilateral donations from other wealthy countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. So yet again, Africa is now relegated to depending on donations and the charity of developed economies to save lives,” says Lamptey.
The African Union has a target to supply 400 million vaccine doses to Africa and by so doing reaching a third of the population.
According to Phionah Atuhebwe, the New Vaccines Introduction Medical Officer at WHO’s regional office in the Congo, 12 million doses of vaccines were supplied through Covax in July.
“We are continuing to push to get more delivered within the next couple of months. Vaccines came to a halt after the issues with India but we are building new partnerships that will see more positive inflow of the vaccines,” says Atuhebwe.
Africa has some 7.2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases as of August, according to figures from the Africa CDC.
While hundreds of millions of vulnerable Africans wait for their first shot, rich countries now have the luxury to moot booster doses.
“We cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a press briefing reported by Reuters.
This has led the WHO to call for a moratorium on all booster shots until the end of September to enable poorer countries in Africa to reach their minimum goal of a 10% vaccination rate.
One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the threat of the Delta Variant is real in addition to the vaccine shortage coupled with fear sparked by fake studies and conspiracy theories.
According to the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), just over 718,412 Nigerians and foreigners alike have received the first dose of Covid-19 vaccine.
“Even with the changing variants of Covid-19, I believe the biggest problem we have is the slow reaction from health protocols as well as the even slower distribution of these vaccines. Why are some states stock-piling the few vaccines we have until they expire and we have to destroy them when there are people who urgently need it?” says Dr Joshua Hayman, a medical practitioner based in Victoria Island, Lagos.
Professor Oyewale Tomori, a virologist and Chairman of the Expert Review Committee on Covid-19, concurs with that assessment.
“I have said it several times that Nigeria is a place where the impossible happens and that is not exactly a good thing when it comes to Covid-19. We have mass hoarding of vaccines by officials and people who are supposed to be receiving priority not getting the doses in time. We have no clear monitoring system to determine who gets the vaccine in time and when. The whole system is flawed and needs an overhaul to ensure we save lives.”
The country’s minister of state for health, Olorunnimbe Mamora, in a virtual conference on ‘Nigeria and the next pandemic: preparedness, response and vaccines’ asserted that Nigeria will be focusing on vaccine development to cater for the shortage of vaccines in the country through a joint venture between the government and a private firm called Bio-Vaccine Nigeria Limited. Hopefully, more lives will be saved then.