As the novel coronavirus disease continues to spread across Africa, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, talked to Africa Renewal about what the organization is doing to support African countries in dealing with the crisis
This is part 2 of a 3-part interview with WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti covering Africa’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what WHO is doing in support of countries, lessons learned from the Ebola response and solidarity efforts underway to fight the spread of the virus.
What is WHO Africa doing to support countries and communities in the fight against this virus?
We have worked hard, with the support of our headquarters and in partnership with many other organizations, including the African Union, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and other UN agencies, to support [African] countries. First, early on in preparation we carried out a significant amount of training for healthcare workers in surveillance, case management and laboratory diagnostics. Some capacity has also been built through WHO training.
We have also helped our member states develop national response plans. I believe almost all member states have now developed a plan, which is central to their being able to mobilize the resources needed for a good state of readiness and to enable them to respond should they have COVID-19 cases. We have sent about 80 experts from WHO to 30 countries.
We have also mobilized experts among countries to exchange expertise and help carry out such functions such as establishing an incident management system — one of the most critical [elements] because it is where all the data is put together and [through which] actions to be taken are coordinated.
We have helped many countries set up rapid response teams — so that they know exactly who has to go where, to do what — in order to make sure they are [fully prepared]. We have worked with partners and with other UN agencies to help countries prepare, recognizing that the response to this pandemic does not lie in the actions of the health sector only. We need all governments to respond and a multi-sectoral response among the UN agencies. For example, we are expecting our colleagues at UNICEF to help in risk communication and community engagement so that people get the information that they need. Then we follow up with what people are hearing and believing to make sure they take the correct measures to protect themselves.
Another example is our strong promotion of hand hygiene: hand-washing. We know that in many of our countries, water is simply not easily available — you don't just reach out and turn on a tap. Many households don't have running water and others may be using communal taps. We will be working with our partners to make sure that water is available. Some UN agencies, particularly now in the context of [people's] reduced movement, have the capacity to support these logistics. They have aeroplanes and ways of moving people, equipment and supplies around. These are the partnerships that we are setting up within the UN and with bilateral agencies to support action within countries.
At the start of the preparedness activities, we procured some supplies to this work. For example, laboratory kits and equipment, as well as supplies for personal protection, including masks and gloves, and other kits meant to help protect healthcare workers and ensure they do not get infected in the course of their work on this outbreak.
How is WHO Africa working with Africa CDC on continental COVID-19 preparedness and response?
We are working a great deal with Africa CDC and with the African Union Commission, of which the Africa CDC is a technical body. We have carried out a lot of training together on the different aspects of preparedness and response; on laboratory capacity-building, testing, case management and surveillance. So, we have really worked hand-in-hand with Africa CDC.
At the political level, they have organized, and we have participated in, ministerial meetings attended by all African countries. We briefed them on the most important interventions to put in place and how to work with WHO, Africa CDC and other partners. We, in turn, organized sub-regional meetings of partners in Nairobi and Dakar for the West, Central, East and Southern African regions. Africa CDC was a very active participant in those meetings, at which we agreed how they would work with us and other UN agencies, bilateral partners and technical agencies so that we synergize our efforts. We are working very closely with them and, in fact, the director of Africa CDC [Dr. John Nkengasong] was nominated as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for this work.
How close are we to a COVID-19 vaccine and what can be done to ensure that it is accessible to all?
A great deal of work is going on to identify a candidate vaccine that might be viable against this virus. I believe there are about 20 vaccines being tested at the moment by different researchers. Some of our experience in developing a vaccine for the Ebola virus, for example, is being used now to promote partnership and sharing of information around the development of a [coronavirus] vaccine.
Developing a vaccine, even in this fast-track mode of working, takes some time, so we don't expect there to be a vaccine available this year, at least. But we are encouraged by the determination and the efforts being put into finding a vaccine. We need to work with the partners that traditionally ensure access to vaccines to prepare African countries to receive and use any vaccine. We work closely with the regulatory authorities in these countries, so what we can offer is linking up with them early on to make sure that there are no obstacles and delays in making the vaccine in the countries.