Africa, Key to Defeating Covid-19, is Still Without Vaccines
Over the past year, Africa has taken fast and targeted action against COVID-19 and the tremendous leadership of national governments and regional organizations like the African Union and the Africa Center for Disease Control. While the continent has achieved a degree of success in managing its COVID-19 cases despite its weak healthcare systems, it is currently facing a fierce second wave of COVID-19, with over 3.3 million cases and over 82,000 deaths. The continent now has a higher COVID death rate than the global level.
South Africa, the fifth most populous country in Africa, which accounts for 30% of the continent’s reported COVID-19 cases with more than 1.3 million cases nationwide, is especially struggling with a second wave triggered by a variant of the virus detected in late December. In addition to an overwhelmed healthcare system, the country is now scrambling to get access to enough COVID vaccines to begin mass immunization. South Africa is expected to pay $5.25 for each dose of Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine it will receive, 2.5 times more than what its European counterparts will be paying.
As the race to acquire the COVID-19 vaccine begins, South Africa along with other African countries are being left behind. According to the WHO, ‘vaccine hoarding’ by rich countries is putting poor countries in Africa and the world at risk. While more than 39 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in 50 wealthy nations, only 25 doses have been administered in one low-income country in the world: Guinea. In addition, the only African country that has started vaccinating its population is Seychelles, using China’s Sinopharm vaccine. Rich countries are fueling an extreme gap in COVID vaccine access by snatching up doses enough to immunize their population multiple times over.
While the WHO and Gavi have launched a global collaborative effort called COVAX to provide equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine to poor countries, there is a growing worry that the vaccine distribution plan is at risk due to countries signing bilateral deals with manufacturers. Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the Director-General of the WHO has warned of a “catastrophic moral failure,” if this trend of rich countries hoarding vaccines continues. Africa is set to receive 600 million doses through COVAX, with the first batch of 30 million arriving in March. The continent has also secured 300 million doses independent of COVAX. African countries are also looking to China, Russia and India for vaccines to fill in the gap of the vaccine supply.
Another major hurdle that African countries face is the absence of the proper “cold chain” needed to store the vaccine. Nearly 3 billion people of the world’s population live in places where there is a lack of refrigeration. This means that their countries’ ability to administer an effective vaccine program is significantly limited. Poor nations may face further discrimination should some sort of vaccine passport become a requirement for international travel as their citizens will be restricted in their movements due to their countries’ inability to rapidly vaccinate the mass of their population.
People in poor countries should not have to die as rich countries use their wealth to selfishly hoard vaccines. COVID-19 won’t be defeated through alienating half of the global population that lacks the wealth and infrastructure to protect its citizens. Now more than ever, rich nations must step up and do their part in supporting equitable distribution of the vaccine. Countries like Canada, that have purchased COVID vaccines to protect a population almost four times their size, must share their excess vaccines with nations who do not have the purchasing capacity. Pharmaceutical companies must work with national and international organizations to make the vaccine affordable. While a price tag of $3 to $10 per vaccine dose may not seem much, for African countries that are already drowning in debt, this could be a huge economic burden. In addition to supporting COVAX, rich nations can also share their expertise and transfer technology for scalable manufacturing of the COVID vaccine, helping countries help themselves.
Now more than ever, the world needs global solidarity. African countries, and other developing nations around the world should not be left behind in the fight against this deadly pandemic. As Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa nicely puts it,
“We first, not me first, is the only way to end the pandemic. 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.”