Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) greets President Muhammadu Buhari when the former paid a courtesy call on the Nigerian leader recently/Photo: NAN

Africa faces big hurdles to acquire COVID-19 vaccines

Our contributing editor Kester Kenn Klomegah writes on the difficulties African countries face to access coronavirus vaccines as the producers struggle to immunise their own populations and worldwide demand outstrips global production capacity


With its large population and fragile health systems, Africa has recorded more than three million Covid-19 cases, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). 

Africa’s coronavirus tally was 3,021,769 as of January 10. The death toll was 72,121 and the number of recoveries was 2,450,492. The biggest number of coronavirus cases were reported from South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and Ethiopia, the Africa CDC has reported.

South Africa, with more than 1.2 million reported cases, including 32,824 deaths, accounts for more than 30% of the total for the continent of 54 countries and 1.3 billion people. 

Just as the rest of the world is embarking on mass vaccination of their citizens, African countries are also looking  for vaccines to help them out of the pandemic. 

During January 4-9, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid official visits to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Botswana and Seychelles. He emphasized that China was willing to deepen mutually beneficial cooperation in diverse spheres with Africa. An example is China’s efforts to create a new image in Africa through the China-European Union Cooperation in vaccine.

An African scientist at the Africa CDC. The continent is yet to develop its own vaccine and is therefore totally dependent on foreign supply/Photo: AMA

Both China and the EU vow to work as a global collaboration under the World Health Organisation to accelerate the development and manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure fair and equitable access for every country in the world. 

It is also important to remind here that the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against Covid-19 was held in June 2020, making China the only major country that convened a summit with countries across Africa in 2020. China has provided rounds of high-demand supplies to all African countries through the African Union to help them combat the pandemic.

Last December, during his annual media conference, President Vladimir Putin made it known that Russia’s readiness to help foreign countries including Africa. With regard to cooperation with other countries, it would boost their technological capabilities to produce the vaccine and foreign countries would invest their own money into expanding their production capacities and purchasing the corresponding equipment, he explained.

According to a report of the TASS News Agency, the Russian Direct Investment Fund has only registered the first Russian vaccine Sputnik V in Africa. “Ministry of Pharmaceutical Industry of Algeria registered Sputnik V on January 10th,” its official Twitter account reported recently.

According to the Fund, the registration was done under the accelerated Emergency Use Authorization procedure. This procedure was also used to register the vaccine in Argentina, Bolivia, and Serbia. The Fund said that supplies to Algeria would be possible thanks to its international partners in India, China, South Korea and other countries.

Writing under the headline “Africa’s Road to Recovery in 2021 Is a Fresh Start”, Dr Alex Vines, the Director for the Africa Programme at Chatham House, said many African countries would be much more seriously affected by the socioeconomic consequences of the global economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic even though the continent is less affected by its health consequences. Even before Covid-19 hit, an increasing number of African countries were indebted and financially stressed.

He wrote that African debt would become a greater global concern in 2021 as many African states remain the world’s poorest and most fragile and have been hard hit by the economic and financial costs imposed by the pandemic.

In his analysis, Dr Vines further pointed out that 2021 would also see increased geopolitical rivalry for influence in Africa. This will include competition over generosity, ranging from positioning over debt cancellation to providing Covid-19 vaccines.

China has its Sinopharm vaccine and has already signed up to COVAX, the WHO’s initiative aimed at ensuring equitable global access. The Russians have their Sputnik V vaccine, the UK has its AstraZeneca and University of Oxford vaccine, and the US the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech (with Germany) vaccines.

Reports from Quartz also said Africa appears not part of the supply priorities of the pharmaceutical companies producing the foremost Covid-19 vaccines. While Pfizer-BioNTech has offered to supply just 50 million Covid-19 vaccines to Africa starting from March to the end of this year, Moderna and AstraZeneca have not yet allocated supplies for Africa.

AstraZeneca directed the African Union (AU) to negotiate with the Serum Institute of India for its vaccine to see if they can get a deal. Serum Institute of India has obtained the license to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Quartz report said most African countries mainly relied on the COVAX co-financing public-private facility backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to enable rapid and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for lower income countries. The facility promised access to vaccines for up to 20% of participating countries’ population with an initial supply beginning in the first quarter of the year to immunize 3% of their population. However, COVAX is underfunded, and these countries must look for other avenues to access more doses to vaccinate the 50% of their population in order to reach immunity.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, several countries around the world have been making efforts to facilitate local vaccine development, clinical trials, and some had made upfront payments for vaccines to encourage early production. Outside of South Africa, most African countries have played too little or no role at all in the development of Covid-19 vaccines and had likewise made little or no effort to secure vaccines while other countries around the world were doing so.

For instance, a globally respected genomic and infectious disease laboratory in Nigeria announced the development of a Covid-19 vaccine in September that is 90% effective against the virus in the preclinical trial but it has not been able to carry out clinical trials due to lack of support and funding.

While Kenya recently announced that through the COVAX facility, it ordered 24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with supply expected to start arriving in the second week of next month, several African countries are opting for vaccines from India, Russia and China. This is despite skepticism about the vaccines from Russia and China in particular. Both countries rolled out their vaccines without phase 3 clinical trial results that confirm the vaccine effectiveness.

South Africa said it made a deal with Serum Institute India and will be getting 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine for its health workers starting this month. The country is also in talks with Russia and China to procure vaccines. Currently, Guinea is testing the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and has ordered 2 million doses.

Morocco has ordered 65 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China and AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute India. Egypt plans to buy 40 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine and has already received 50,000 doses of the vaccine in December and is expecting another 50,000 in the second or third week of this month when vaccination will commence. Nigeria says vaccine access was in its discussions this week with the Chinese foreign minister during his visit to the county, according to the report from Quartz.

For many African countries, it is time to reflect on their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed the weaknesses in Africa’s health system and adversely affected its economies . 

The author is based in Moscow

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