More than 68 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in 56 countries across the world as of 25 January 2021. Among these countries are four from Africa: Egypt, Guinea, Morocco and Seychelles.
“I am going to be the first to get the vaccine,” the President of Seychelles Wavel Ramkalawan said on 10 January at the launch the national vaccine campaign, to “show that the vaccine is safe and to convince people this is one of the tools at our disposable” to combat the virus, he added. He kept his word.
In Guinea, local media reported on New Year’s Eve that vaccination was being rolled out across the country. Cabinet members and a few other government officials were shown on TV receiving their first doses of the vaccine.
Other countries across the continent are making efforts to acquire the vaccines but have to compete with wealthier nations who have scooped up huge amounts of the vaccines, mostly by pre-ordering millions of doses.
According to data collected by Bloomberg News - a global financial and data news outlet that is tracking daily numbers related to vaccines, over 35 wealthy countries have pre-ordered huge amounts of vaccines, sometimes up to 3.3 times the number of doses needed to vaccinate their entire populations.
“We first, not me first, is the only way to end the pandemic,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa said at a virtual press conference recently, as she reflected on the imbalance of vaccine doses availability.
“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,” said Dr. Moeti.
As part of a collective effort to ensure that the African continent has access to the doses it requires, the African Union (AU) Chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said on 14 January that about 270 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been provisionally secured for African countries through the COVID-19 African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT).
These 270 million doses add to the approximately 600 million doses already promised by the COVAX initiative – a global facility working for fair and equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines for every country in the world. Still, the number of vaccines from both initiatives are not enough to cover the continent, and the first batch of about 30 million vaccine doses of the COVAX 600 million will not start arriving in countries until March this year.
Securing the vaccines to getting them into the arms of most people who need it most in Africa may take even longer, not just because of international vaccine hoarding, but also due to logistical constraints, including the need for deep refrigeration of some of the vaccines.
“We will face logistical challenges, no doubt,” said former Liberian President and co-chair of a WHO review panel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last week in an interview with a US radio station.
Earlier this month authorities in Senegal – among the first countries to carry out COVID-19 tests in Africa – said they may not have capability to store some of the vaccines that require ultra-low temperatures.
A vaccine that “fits easily into the system that exists, a vaccine that doesn’t require major investment,” is what the country would prefer, Ousseynou Badiane, the head of the Senegal’s national vaccination programme told Reuters. Senegal is not alone.
For their vaccination campaign, Guinea and Seychelles are using vaccines developed in Russia and China respectively.
Countries across the continent have significant experience conducting mass vaccination campaigns. Infrastructure developed over the years, including for polio, cholera and measles vaccination drives, and lessons learned during the Ebola epidemic stand them in good stead, former President Sirleaf pointed out. Still, having to keep COVID-19 vaccines in extreme low temperatures presents additional challenges.
Logistics aside, financing nationwide vaccine campaigns is another challenge for African governments.
While, the COVAX initiative has raised $2.4 billion of the required $ 6.6 billion for the exercise, more is still needed in 2021 for vaccine procurement.
The AU has succeeded in getting the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) to provide advance guarantees of up to $2 billion to the manufacturers on behalf of the AU’s 55 Member States, but countries will still need to look for resources to finance the gaps.
“These are historical times. For the first time in history, Africa has secured access to millions of vaccine doses in the middle of a pandemic just like most of Western countries,” said Strive Masiyiwa, the AU Special Envoy, said. Nonetheless, “there is still a huge shortage of vaccine doses.”
While, to fill existing gaps, countries would have to resort to bilateral agreements with the manufacturers, they “must do everything in their power to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are made a global public good—free of charge to the public, fairly distributed and based on need not ability to pay,” urges Ms. Winnie Byanyima, the UNAIDS Executive Director.