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Africa lags behind in COVID-19 vaccine rush

Martina Schwikowski
September 30, 2020

In the race for a coronavirus vaccine, many African countries feel disadvantaged. An international vaccine coalition has pledged millions of doses for developing nations. But experts warn that Africa must do more.

Kenia Corona Graffiti
Image: Getty Images/AFP/G. Odhiambo

The entire world is anxiously waiting for the day when an effective and market-ready COVID-19 vaccine could return life to normalcy.

The World Health Organization lists 191 coronavirus vaccine projects underway. Forty of these are in clinical evaluation. which means that they are now being tested on humans.

But wealthy countries are seeking to secure many of these vaccines for themselves once they are licensed and approved. Countries including the US, Great Britain and Japan, as well as the European Union which signed a deal as a block, have already pre-ordered 2 billion doses of at least six vaccines in development, according to the science journal Nature

Such a move is incomprehensible, says South African epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim.

Coronavirus vaccine samples
Despite several clinical trials, there is still no effective, globally verified coronavirus vaccine Image: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

"It is disturbing that some countries have fallen victim to vaccine nationalism," Karim told DW. "They have the false assumption that security is possible for some countries while the virus continues to spread in poorer countries that cannot buy vaccines. It is simply wrong to think that you can be safe when others are not."

Karim's opinion is clear: "It is in the best interest of the whole world to distribute vaccines in a fair way to as many people as possible."

Read more: Germany's trade with Africa falls amid coronavirus pandemic

Vaccine alliance to assist developing nations

That is precisely the goal of an international progam called COVAX to ensure fair distribution of a vaccine set up by WHO, together with the Gavi, a vaccine alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

WHO also relies on something called the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) through which research results and intellectual property such as vaccine formulations are also shared.

The COVAX program wants to to prevent a repeat of the situation in 2009 and 2010 when African countries were supplied with a swine fever vaccine a year after the outbreak — a small group of wealthy countries had bought up the stocks.

"We will never have enough [coronavirus] vaccines if we assume that we need two doses for every person worldwide," says Aurelia Nguyen, Gavi Director of Vaccines and Sustainability.

South Africa: Back to the land

But the virus knows no boundaries. Without fair access to vaccines for all countries, there can be no return to normality. Nguyen stressed in an interview with DW.

"We want to secure 2 billion doses of vaccine by the end of 2021. That would be enough to vaccinate the most vulnerable people such as the elderly, frail persons, nurses, and medical staff in every country."

Read more: Coronavirus: Global deaths pass 1 million mark

More than 150 countries on board

The project requires not only money but also solidarity. However, Nguyen is confident this can be achieved "because, through our program, we can pool the purchasing power of a large group of countries and be stronger together," she said.

Higher-earning nations are self-financing. The vaccine alliance was overwhelmed by the swift commitment of more than 71 high-earning countries.

"In socially and economically difficult times, we have governments from every continent that are participating in our plan." She said this took Gavi even further in efforts to provide life-saving vaccines to low income countries. "We can now sign four more contracts with development partners and manufacturing companies," Nguyen said.

A health worker prepares a vaccine.
Africa has little experience with vaccinating the adult populationImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Mednick

The 92 low and middle-income countries worldwide would be financially supported by voluntary commitments. $2 billion (€1.7 billion) is to be raised through donations from states and the private sector, while $700 million has already been donated. Together, this could already cover around 64% of the world's population.

"All countries should receive the same vaccines at the same time," Nguyen stressed.

More local manufacturers wanted

Nevertheless, South African expert Karim believes Africa needs to look more closely at locally producing a vaccine against the coronavirus. "South Africa has currently not found a vaccine, I am disappointed about that," says Karim.

Read more: How COVID-19 is endangering sex workers in Africa

Karim says four companies in Africa are capable of either manufacturing or packaging such a product that can be made available in quantities on the continent.

He noted that individual African countries are already working on identifying groups that should be prioritized when distributing the vaccines. This is important in preparation for taking the next step, he said.

Most countries in Africa have experience vaccinating children but not adults.

"The cost of implementing targeted vaccination campaigns for specific professional or age groups will be high," Karim said.