Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – Africa’s quest for vaccine security received a major boost this week after the World Health Organization (WHO) and its COVAX partners announced a partnership with South African pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, a network of universities and the Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC) to establish the continent’s first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub.
Companies being partnered by the World Health Organisation are; Biovac, which will act as the developer, and Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines which will be the manufacturer while the universities will provide academic support, and the Africa CDC will bring in technical and regional support.
The technology transfer hub, to be based in South Africa, is a training facility where the technology is established at an industrial scale and clinical development performed.
Interested manufacturers from low and middle-income countries can receive training and any necessary licenses to the technology with WHO and partners bringing in the production know-how, quality control and necessary licenses to a single entity to facilitate a broad and rapid technology transfer to multiple recipients.
This move, analysts contend, dovetails into the campaign being led by South Africa and India for the temporary waiver of patents for COVID-19 vaccines to improve global supply.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the partnership as a landmark achievement.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the full extent of the vaccine gap between developed and developing economies, and how that gap can severely undermine global health security. 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,” he said.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus weighed in saying the partnership was a boon for Africa which has had the least access to vaccines.
“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of local production to address health emergencies, strengthen regional health security and expand sustainable access to health products,” he said.
The partnership comes at a time most African countries are running low on vaccines or have in worst case scenarios used up their stocks, received mainly from the COVAX facility which is battling supply challenges.
Dr Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi (a partner in the COVAX vaccine sharing scheme) said early this month that due to shortages, only about 82 million doses had been delivered to 129 low income countries.
“By the end of June, we will be facing a shortfall of 190 million doses. The only way to plug this gap in the short term is for those countries that have doses to share them: not later in the year, when our own supplies pick up again, but now,” Dr Berkley said.
As of mid-May, Africa had received 38 million vaccine doses for a population more than one billion-strong, a far cry from the targeted supply of 200 million doses needed by September this year to vaccinate at least 10 percent of Africa’s population.
Further, 83 percent of doses administered in Africa are concentrated in Morocco (which accounts for more than 10 million administered doses), Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Angola, Tunisia and Senegal.
The supply challenges have led to concerns that Africa’s vaccination programme would lag further behind other regions.
“As supplies dry up, dose-sharing is an urgent, critical and short-term solution to ensuring that Africans at the greatest risk of Covid-19 gets the much-needed protection,” WHO regional director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said recently.
“While we call for vaccine equity, Africa must also knuckle down and make the best of what we have,” she added.
Despite supply challenges, the Southern African region also had something else to smile about in addition to the news from South Africa, when SADC member the Seychelles was credited with having the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate on the continent. The island nation has at least 140 doses administered per 100 individuals.
Other good news on the vaccine front has come out of Cuba, which has developed a drug with 92 percent efficacy. Further, Iran has authorised a home-grown inactivated COVID-19 vaccine from Shifa Pharmed Industrial Co for emergency use.
While the continent awaits the roll out of the mRNA technology transfer hub and to access the options offered by Cuba and Iran as well as an anticipated waiver on vaccine patents, The Southern Times tracked the vaccination status of countries in the SADC region.
The country is expecting a delivery of 200,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines this Wednesday as it forges ahead with a vaccination programme that had seen 152 383 people receive their first dose while 48,510 had been fully vaccinated as of June 18.
“The consignment has been purchased by the government of the Republic of Botswana from the People’s Republic of China. Communication on the vaccination rollout of this consignment and others expected will be made in due course,” Botswana’s Ministry of Health and Wellness said on Tuesday this week.
Early this month, Botswana COVID-19 vaccine committee chairperson Professor Mosepele Mosepele rallied that country’s private sector to compliment government efforts to procure vaccines for Batswana.
He said the estimated cost of a National plan for acquisition, logistics and vaccination of Botswana against COVID-19 was BWP1.6 billion
“To date, the government of Botswana has availed BWP700,900,000 (44 percent) for vaccines and for doses whose payments were due by 7 June, 2021,” he said.
“The Presidential COVID-19 taskforce is confident that this concerted process will ensure that sufficient funds are raised from the private sector in the shortest possible time and augment those by the government of the Republic of Botswana to procure vaccines for an estimated 2.4 million persons.”
He added; “Timely collaboration with the private sector on vaccine acquisition and deployment will reduce the escalating number of fatalities witnessed among those over the age of 55. It remains critical to vaccinate this age category first so that the younger generations are assured that their older relatives are protected against COVID-19 by the time that younger adults in employment get vaccinated during phase two of the roll out.”
Botswana’s COVID-19 case load currently stands at 65,808, including 1,069 deaths and 59,616 recoveries.
The country started inoculating its citizens on March 19, 2021 after receiving its first shipment of 100,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines from China.
It has since incorporated the AstraZeneca vaccine after taking delivery of its first allocation of 24,000 doses under the COVAX facility in April.
According to the Africa CDC, Namibia has administered nearly 68,000 vaccines, covering just over 3 percent of the population.
According to statistics, there was initial hesitancy towards the vaccines in Namibia, but the programme was steadily gaining momentum as on June 9, 1,782 people got vaccinated, rising to 2,077 by June 11 and 3,309 on June 19.
The country has recorded 53,603 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic including 789 deaths.
President Ramaphosa moved South Africa back to level 3 lockdown last week as cases spiked, a situation largely blamed on the country’s stuttering vaccination campaign.
With the continent’s highest infection and death rates, South Africa was forced to postpone its initial vaccination rollout plan using the AstraZeneca jabs as concerns mounted over its efficacy against a new variant.
The inoculation campaign eventually started mid-February after the government switched to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but was again temporarily halted mid-April following incidences of patients getting severely ill or dying from blood clots after getting the J&J vaccine in the United States.
The exercise resumed later in April after evidence showed that the benefits of the vaccine far outweighed its side effects and later on in May South Africa incorporated the Pfizer vaccine to broaden its vaccination programme.
So far, more than two million out of the population of 59 million in South Africa have been vaccinated – about half a million of them with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while the rest have received the Pfizer vaccine.
Despite its well-documented economic challenges, Zimbabwe has punched above its weight and exceeded expectations with a well-choreographed vaccination programme.
Utilising a cocktail of Chinese, Indian and Russian made vaccines; Zimbabwe has so far inoculated about 1.1 million people out of a population of 16 million.
“On procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, Cabinet is pleased to report that arrangements are currently in progress to procure two million doses of vaccines from China. These are expected in the country by end of month. Furthermore, 500,000 doses of vaccines are expected to be delivered this Saturday, 26th June, 2021,” Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said on Tuesday this week.
“The nation is advised that the next priority areas of vaccination are the remaining border posts, especially Forbes, Chirundu and Kariba, current hotspots, tobacco auction floors and people’s markets such as Renkini in Bulawayo, Mbare Musika in Harare and Sakubva Musika in Mutare. The Grain Marketing Board staff and COTTCO staff as well as the Hwange population will also be included in the vaccination programme.”
Chief Co-ordinator of the National COVID-19 Taskforce, Dr Agnes Mahomva, assured Zimbabweans that the country had solid vaccine procurement plans in place.
“We are very pro-active in terms of procuring more vaccines so that people can get their doses,” she said on Tuesday this week.