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Africa’s long wait for the Covid-19 vaccine

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AFRICA will have to wait “weeks if not months” before receiving Covid-19 vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to various officials working towards getting doses for the continent.

Close to 900 million doses have been secured so far through various initiatives, enough to inoculate about 30 percent of the continent’s 1,3 billion people this year.

Hoarding by wealthy nations, funding shortfalls, regulations and cold chain requirements have slowed the process of rolling out the vaccines.

“The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure and the price will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the poorest countries,” warned WHO head Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus.

Calls for equity have been growing. Close to 40 million doses have been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries, compared to just 25 doses given in just one of the lowest-income countries, according to Tedros. “Not 25 million, not 25 000, just 25,” he said, without saying which country.

So far, none of the main, Western vaccines has yet been administered in Africa, almost two months after the first doses were rolled out in Europe.

A coalition of organisations and activists dubbed The People’s Vaccine Alliance found that “rich nations representing just 14 percent of the world’s population had bought up more than half (53 percent) of all the most promising vaccines.” That included all of Moderna’s vaccines for 2021 and 96 percent of Pfizer’s expected production.

Canada topped the chart, according to the data by analytics company Airfinity, “with enough doses to vaccinate each Canadian five times”. Much of that demand has to be met before lower income countries can have a turn.

In Africa, the situation rekindles memories of the 1990s, when antiretroviral (ARVs) treatment for HIV/Aids was made in the United States. Even though the continent had a much bigger population of people infected with HIV, it took at least six years before the life-saving treatment could be available for Africans.

Twelve million people died in Africa from Aids-related complications in a decade, even as mortality in the US dropped drastically, according to analyses by the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UNAids executive director Winnie Byanyima has been at the forefront of those calling for fairness from Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers.

“We’re not asking them to make losses,” she told the BBC. With the ARVs, it was pressure from people living with HIV and champions of the right to life that got governments to allow for the production of generic treatments which were much more affordable. “The price (of antiretroviral treatment per person) dropped from $10 000 per year (per person) to just $100 per year.”

She wants the same approach for the Covid-19 vaccine,urging the pharmaceutical industry “not to be driven by the desire for super profits”. They can still make profits even if they share their formulae, she added.

The WHO head is also calling for equity: “Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritise bilateral deals, going around Covax, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue,” he said.

The Covax facility is an initiative of the WHO and the Vaccine Alliance to equitably distribute Covid-19 vaccines across the world.

“Most supply of the leading vaccines was pre-ordered by wealthy nations even before the safety and efficacy data was made available,” said Richard Mihigo, head of immunisation and vaccine development at the WHO Africa office.

Asked why Covax didn’t do the same, he said securing funding was the first task the initiative engaged in. So far, $6billion has been raised out of a target of $8billion for 92 middle-and low-income countries, according to Thabani Maphosa of the Vaccine Alliance, Gavi.

So far, the facility has secured two billion doses for this group of countries, which includes all of Africa. Some 600 million are for the continent.

The African Union has made arrangements for member states to apply for $7billion funding from lenders, which would cover up to 270 million vaccines, according to its current chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa.

But it is not just the purchase of vaccines that needs funding. Countries have also been ramping up their cold chains as they prepare for their arrival. These are especially important for the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept at -70C.

The UN children’s agency, Unicef, which usually deals with distribution of childhood vaccines, will be handling the logistics of delivering Covid-19 vaccines under the Covax facility. The agency is preparing to transport at least twice its usual capacity — what it calls “a mammoth and historic logistical operation”.

But before it can be done, countries need to have ready infrastructure to receive and administer the doses. Benjamin Schreiber, who is coordinating the Covax facility for Unicef, says he is “worried that we haven’t resourced the roll-out and the preparation enough”.

“What we’re seeing in the roll-out in some of the high-income countries is that it’s complicated, it needs to be resourced and properly planned, and there haven’t been enough global resources to lower-income countries,” he told the BBC— BBC

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