Western countries including France, the UK and the US – which have large elderly populations vulnerable to the coronavirus – have launched mass vaccination campaigns. At the same time, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argued on January 8 that that low- and middle-income countries not getting Covid-19 vaccines presented a “clear problem”.
“No country is exceptional and should cut the queue and vaccinate all their population while some remain with no supply of the vaccine,” he said. The same day, the European Union announced a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech for 300 million additional doses of their jab, giving the EU nearly half of the firms’ global output for 2021.
The WHO noted on Friday that the pandemic is spreading rapidly in Africa, with recorded cases surging with 19 percent in the first week of January – the second-highest rate of transmission for a region of the world behind that of North America.
Countries that have ordered more jabs than they need should consider giving surplus vaccines to Africa, John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC Africa) said in December. “Some countries have got like three times to four, five times more than what they need,” he said at a press conference.
Notably, Canada has struck deals that would enable it to immunise 505 percent of its population; the US to inoculate 200 percent of its population – although, as in the other Western countries, many jabs have not yet arrived while governments are racing against time to inoculate largely elderly populations.
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Acquiring sufficient vaccines is first and foremost a financial challenge for Africa. Only a quarter of African countries have adequate plans for funding inoculation programmes, the WHO warned. The UN health body hopes that 3 percent of Africans will be vaccinated by March 2021 and 20 percent by the end of next year.
The WHO wants pharmaceutical companies to use the Covax mechanism it set up along with the international vaccine organisation Gavi to distribute jabs to under-developed countries. Covax has agreements to support 92 low- and middle-income countries, more than half of them in Africa. It has struck deals to procure two billion vaccine doses; the WHO hopes that the first doses will be delivered by the end of January.
Russian and Chinese options?
Some countries think this is too slow and are seeking supplies of Chinese and Russian vaccines, which have not been tested as extensively as the Western Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna jabs.
“Some nations are trying to use their geopolitical ties to get access to vaccines, with those close to China negotiating for access to its Sinopharm vaccine and others close to Russia trying to do the same with the Sputnik jab,” Mamady Traoré, a vaccine and epidemic response co-ordinator at Médecins Sans Frontières, told FRANCE 24.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi finished a tour of Africa on January 9 aimed at affirming Beijing’s ties to the continent. The presidents of DR Congo and Botswana said they thanked China for its support in the fight against Covid-19.
However, China’s “promises concerning vaccines in Africa have been really vague,” W. Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC and a former Liberian minister of public works, told CNN. “There has been no timetable.”
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Guinea, meanwhile, ordered 55 doses of the Russian Sputnik jab in December, giving it to some government officials.
Other countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Morocco and Egypt have opted for a different strategy – negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for clinical trials on their soil.
“This approach benefits everyone,” Traoré said. “It means that companies can test their vaccines on different populations used in previous trials, while allowing sample sizes to grow. In return, the countries hosting the tests will get priority access to the vaccines.”
Morocco will get priority access to ten million doses in exchange for its participation in Stage 3 trials of the Sinopharm vaccine. The kingdom hopes to start its vaccination campaign by early February.
“Morocco also wants China to transfer the technology so it can manufacture the vaccine on its own territory,” Traoré observed. “It’s an interesting strategy.”
Pfizer-BioNTech jab ‘not suited to Africa’
Getting adequate vaccine supplies is not the only challenge African countries face. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna jabs use advanced technology based on RNA and require storage at -70 and -20 degrees respectively. That makes their distribution and storage a logistical nightmare, especially in countries with tropical climates or isolated regions.
“We’ve been to places where the last mile of the transportation happens on the back of a motorbike,” Frederik Kristensen, deputy head of the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, told AFP in December.
“The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is not suited to Africa; infrastructure problems make it impossible to store the jabs at the required temperatures,” Traoré said.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, by contrast, can be stored in normal refrigerated conditions for at least six months. Its doses are also much cheaper: between $2 and $3 per injection, compared to at least $25 for the other two.
Anti-vaccine sentiment is a problem in several Western countries that have started jabs. An Ipsos poll published in November found that 46 percent of French adults said they would refuse to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. Such antipathy towards vaccines prompted the government to roll out vaccines slowly – engendering an outcry from experts who lambasted a “fiasco” as France lags far behind its neighbours Britain and Germany.
In Africa, this is much less of a problem. A survey by CDC Africa and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that 79 percent of people in 15 African countries would be vaccinated if the jab was found to be safe and effective.
The Seychelles became the first African country to start inoculating its population on January 10, using the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
This article was translated from the original in French.
Where does Africa stand in the Covid-19 vaccine race? The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ France 24.