Harare –The failure by Africa to access meaningful quantities of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX facility could threaten the strides the continent has made so far in the fight against the pandemic.
The World Health Organisation this week said a large number of developing countries did not have sufficient stocks to continue vaccination programmes as a third wave of the pandemic sweeps Africa.
African countries have collectively administered just 40 million vaccine doses, translating to less than two percent of the target population for attainment of herd immunity. The continental target is to vaccinate 60 percent of the population by 2022.
In Southern Africa, governments have been tightening restrictions on movements in a bid to contain infections. At the time of writing, Africa had reported more than 178 million cases and over 3.86 million deaths due to COVID-19.
“In Africa, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths increased by almost 40 percent in the past week, and in some countries the number of deaths tripled or quadrupled,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
At a media briefing in Geneva, Switzerland this week, WHO senior adviser Dr Bruce Aylward said vaccine shortages posed a serious threat to developing countries.
“If we look at what we’re hearing from countries on a day-to-day basis, well over half of countries have run out of stock and are calling for additional vaccines. But in reality it’s probably much higher,” Dr Aylward said. “I would say …. at least well over a half of (countries participating in COVAX) would not have sufficient vaccine to be able to sustain their programmes right now.’
Dr Aylward said COVAX had so far distributed 90 million doses to 131 countries across the globe but these were inadequate when compared to needs.
This has prompted South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to up his calls for developed countries to allow Africa to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines through a waiver of intellectual property rights.
His country made a major breakthrough in its lobby this week when it was announced that South Africa’s Biovac Institute working with France, had partnered Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a network of universities, and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to establish the continent’s first RNA vaccine technology transfer hub.
“We would like the negotiations taking place on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS waiver) to proceed with speed,’ President Ramaphosa said. “People in Africa are facing a rising wave of infections. In South Africa we are facing a third wave which seems to be more severe than the first and the second one and the only defence that we have is that we have vaccines.”
On the vaccine technology transfer hub, President Ramaphosa said: “This landmark initiative is a major advance in the international effort to build vaccine development and manufacturing capacity that will put Africa on a path to self-determination.
“South Africa welcomes the opportunity to host a vaccine technology transfer hub and to build on the capacity and expertise that already exists on the continent to contribute to this effort.”
Under the tech hub, WHO and its partners will bring in production know-how, quality control and licences to enable a rapid roll-out. Biovac will be the developer; Afrigen will be the manufacturer; and a consortium of universities will provide the scientific know-how.
Messenger RNA genetic technology, which is used to make the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, trains the body to reproduce spike proteins similar to those found on the coronavirus. When exposed to the real virus later, the body recognises the spike proteins and is able to fight them off.
Dr Kate Stegeman of Doctors Without Borders said “Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech must immediately share their mRNA technology with the hub so that many more mRNA vaccines can be produced independently by manufacturers in South Africa and more broadly on the African continent”.
Meanwhile, African finance ministers and the World Bank Group are working together to purchase and distribute 400 million vaccines.
“The World Bank is very pleased to support African countries through this partnership with the African Union to quickly provide hundreds of millions of doses,” said World Bank Group president Mr David Malpass. “Working together, we can expedite doses to countries and support deployment. Countries urgently need more pathways for acquiring vaccines that match their needs and have early delivery schedules.”
AU special envoy Mr Strive Masiyiwa added: “As a result of this joint initiative between the World Bank and African institutions such as the Africa Import Export Bank and the Africa Centre for Disease Control, we now have the capacity to vaccinate at least 400 million people, or 30 percent of our population of 1.3 billion.”
Despite the vaccination challenges, the African Development Bank (AfDB) said the continent had fared well in its fight against the pandemic.
The institution said since early 2020 when the virus was detected in Africa, daily testing capacity of countries on the continent has risen from 13,200 to 105,000 as of June 21, 2021.
Training of health workers has been amplified and facilities – including intensive care units and laboratories – are being rolled out.
“This means that African countries are no longer on the back foot and are recovering gradually,” said the bank. “Early detection has been instrumental in limiting the spread of the virus and has helped countries trace, isolate and treat confirmed cases.
“However, this was a challenge in Africa as many countries did not have the adequate testing facilities. This changed as the pandemic progressed as countries such as Côte d’Ivoire which had no laboratory for detecting the coronavirus but now has about 10…
“Now we have to win the war against the coronavirus. We started almost from scratch. When we look at the progress made in a few months, we realise that we have come a long way.”