Africa is in danger of being left behind in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as countries in other regions strike vaccine deals, the World Health Organization has warned.
"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 Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, in a statement on Thursday.
Guinea is the only African nation so far to have received vaccinations, with some 25 people being inoculated so far.
Lack of vaccines as case numbers surge
The WHO's comments come as more than half of African countries are experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. There's also concern that a variant circulating in South Africa may prove considerably more infectious.
The continent has recorded more than 3.6 million COVID-19 cases and over 82,000 deaths, as of Friday January 22.
Experts warn, however, that the lack of testing and the difficulty in obtaining reliable data from many African countries probably means that the case numbers and death toll are much higher. South Africa, for example, is carrying out 10 times more tests per capita than Nigeria.
South Africa still not vaccinating
South Africa announced the death of popular politician Jackson Mthembu, a long-term member of the ruling African National Congress, on Thursday.
Mthembu, whose most recent position was minister in the presidency, was the face of the government in the fight against COVID-19. He had tested positive for the virus on January 11.
"Minister Mthembu was an exemplary leader, an activist and life-long champion of freedom and democracy,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Twitter. “He was a much-loved and greatly respected colleague and comrade, whose passing leaves our nation at a loss."
The government of South Africa, one of the continent's wealthiest nations, has come under heavy domestic criticism for its failure to start vaccinating.
South Africa has so far secured 20 million doses with most expected to be delivered in the first half of this year, according to an announcement by Rampahosa last week.
The country has recorded more than 39,000 virus-related deaths and 1.3 million infections.
Neighboring Zimbabwe is also among those countries on the continent seeing a significant increase in cases. More than half the country's 30,047 total and 917 deaths (as of January 22) have been recorded since the start of January.
On Wednesday, Zimbabwe's government announced that Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo had died after contracting COVID-19. Agriculture Minister Perrance Shiri, died of the virus last July.
How are African nations reacting to the surge in cases?
Malawi has declared a state of disaster. President Lazarus Chakwera announced new lockdown measures, including the shutting of schools for the next three weeks and a nightly curfew.
Two members of his Cabinet, Transport Minister Sidik Mia and Local Government Minister Lingson Berekanyama, died last Tuesday after contracting the infection.
Preparations to counter the surge are under way in Nigeria, where state governors have been holding meetings to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
The continent's most populous country of 200 million inhabitants has over 110,000 officially confirmed cases with 1,435 deaths — although these figures should be treated with caution as Nigeria is carrying out relatively few tests per capita.
By the end of 2021, it aims to have supplied two billion doses globally.
'Foolish' to depend on the West
Vaccines secured so far by the WHO's COVAX program for poor countries will not be made available before the end of March, while large deliveries are scheduled only for June.
African leaders are openly showing their disillusionment with the lack of international solidarity.
Kenya's health cabinet secretary, Mutahi Kagwe called for African self-sufficiency in an interview with DW.
"It's very important to come to the realization that depending on the Western nations for our well-being as far as medical issues are concerned is foolish," Kagwe said.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia and co-chair of the WHO's Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, has criticized how the international community is handling the distribution of vaccines.
"Despite the fact that scientists have been so effective in getting a vaccine ready for use so early, we now find that in the rollout, the wealthier nations that are well resourced are the ones that are going to get the vaccine," she said in an interview with DW on Tuesday.
What is the African Union doing about vaccines?
Current African Union chair Cyril Ramaphosa announced last week that the AU's vaccine task team had secured a provisional 270 million COVID-19 vaccine doses.
The vaccines will be supplied by the US firm Pfizer, AstraZeneca through the Serum Institute of India, and Johnson & Johnson.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still in stage-3 trials and the company has yet to release data on its effectiveness. It is also reportedly experiencing manufacturing delays, according to the New York Times.
If it is effective, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could prove a boon for Africa.
It comes in a single dose compared to the double dose of both the BioNTech-Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. It can also stay stable in a refrigerator for months, whereas the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at sub-zero temperatures — a difficulty in many parts of Africa.
Ramaphosa said while the COVAX initiative was vital to Africa’s response, the African Union was concerned that COVAX volumes to be released between February and June may not extend beyond the needs of frontline health care workers and thus "may thus not be enough to contain the ever-increasing toll of the pandemic in Africa."
According to a draft briefing prepared by the African Export-Import Bank, African countries will pay between $3 (€2.48) and $10 per dose for these AU organized vaccines, Reuters news agency reported.
While this is less than the $19.50 to $37 that wealthier nations are paying, it is still a considerable financial burden for countries already struggling to manage the economic fallout of the pandemic.
It means to fight the virus, poor African nations risk having to incur greater debt.
Mariel Müller and Laila Harrak contributed to this article. It was updated on January 22, 2020 to reflect new developments.