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WEF panel sees Africa waiting on vaccine

Kristie Pladson
January 26, 2021

At the World Economic Forum, the WHO Special Envoy to Africa has said the continent cannot count on having doses of the COVID-19 vaccine soon. One German CEO suggests letting companies vaccinate their global workforce.

Volunteers to test a COVID-19 vaccine wait outside a hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg.
African countries should prepare to rely on alternative health measures until COVID-19 vaccine doses arriveImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Sibeko

African countries need to be ready to wait for their share of the coronavirus vaccines, the director of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), John Nkengasong, said Tuesday in a discussion at the annual World Economic Forum's online summit.

"We as a continent must recognize vaccines will not be here when we want them," the director said.

People in African countries will have to rely on alternative public health measures to stay healthy meanwhile, said Nkengsong, who is also the World Health Organization's (WHO) Special Envoy to Africa.

"Unfortunately, the continent is facing a very aggressive second wave of the pandemic," he said, one that has brought higher mortality rates.

Speaking from Ethiopia, Nkengasong was part of a digital discussion about how to vaccinate the global population against COVID-19. The talk, which would normally have been held as part of a week of events in Davos, Switzerland, included a panel of business and health care leaders currently involved in distributing doses of the vaccine to billions of people around the globe.

Logo of the 2021 Davos World Economic Forum
Due to the global pandemic, the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) is solely a virtual eventImage: Salvatore Di Nolfi/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

Doses in 'many, many countries' by March

COVAX, a WHO-led program to inoculate the world's poorest countries, expects to begin small-scale deliveries of the vaccine in February, before scaling up to achieve its goal of 2 billion doses in 2021, said panelist Seth F. Berkley. Berkley is the CEO of Gavi, a COVAX coordinator and alliance dedicated to bringing vaccines to developing countries. Gavi hopes to have up to 150 million doses delivered by the end of March.

"There are vaccine doses in vials now," Berkley said. They are waiting on regulatory approval from the WHO.

There is a bit of a "global vaccine panic" at the moment and many countries are wanting doses immediately, he added. Doses will be in "many, many countries'' in the developing world within 8 to 10 weeks.

"We would have preferred to have these doses simultaneously in developing countries," he said.

The Moderna and BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines "were not the preferred doses to use globally," he said, pointing to the low quantity, relatively high cost, and the low temperatures required to store them.

It's the next generation of vaccines that could be approved over the next weeks that "will be flowing quickly around the world," Berkley said.

Let your boss play doctor

The CEO of German parcel-delivery company Deutsche Post DHL Group offered a different solution on how to best distribute the vaccine: let employers do it. 

"If there was enough vaccine, we would be more than happy to vaccinate all our own people around the world at our expense," said CEO Frank Appel.

Deutsche Post DHL has 570,000 employees in 220 countries, Appel said.

"If we would vaccinate them, that is not a game changer. But if you do that for top 500 Fortune 500 companies, it will be a significant step in the right direction."

The strategy could be used in instances where national governments are unable to access doses, due to cost or other obstacles, he said.

"I think that should be considered. Not now, but in due course, over the year or next year."

AstraZeneca "not playing fair"

A politicized pandemic

On Monday, panelists also discussed the diverse ways countries had responded to the pandemic.

"A pandemic sheds a very bright light on a lot of the weaknesses in a society," said panelist Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Minority communities in the US are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, the medical advisor to US President Joe Biden said. This is "related to the social determinants of health that have been ingrained in our society from the beginning."

Leaving pandemic response decisions to the individual US states without strong federal leadership had also cost the country dearly, Fauci said.

"There was a considerable amount of mixed messaging about what needed to be done from the top down," he said, a veiled reference to former US President Donald Trump, with whom the scientist had frequently clashed.

"When public health issues become politically charged, like wearing a mask or not, you cannot imagine how destructive that is to any unified public health message."

Chancellor Merkel urges fair distribution of vaccines

Connectivity issues

Frans van Houten, CEO of the Netherlands-based digital health equipment producer Royal Philips also called for stronger leadership in Europe.

"In a crisis, you need a general," he said.

The EU needs greater solidarity and clarity on policies to keep supply chains open so that vital medical equipment can be delivered, he said.

"I've made phone calls to just about every politician in the world to keep the supply chains open," he said.

Despite these worries, van Houten sees the pandemic as an "accelerator" in introducing new care models like remote care and wearables.

Expanding the use of data-driven and cloud technology would create more interconnected health care systems. This would also make it easier to begin practices like remote patient monitoring, for patients both in hospitals and at home, he said. Royal Philips produces telecare devices.

"We will have to overcome privacy concerns" to accomplish this, he said.

Other panelists also pushed for a greater focus on data analysis and sharing within healthcare.

Establishing global health-data registries and transparent, immediate communication between systems could be immensely helpful in fighting epidemics, said Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association, a nonprofit that funds cardiovascular research.

"Trust matters if we're going to get on the other side of this," she said, adding: "People trust when they see cooperation."

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