EU top executives: Administering COVID vaccines is now priority in Africa

While in Europe 70% of citizens had a complete vaccination schedule, in Africa this figure is barely 10%. [Shutterstock]

Too many doses of vaccines delivered to Africa are wasted, according to both the French EU Council presidency and the European Commission, who now want to strengthen local health systems to ensure that these doses are administered to the population.

In Africa, “the problem is no longer the level of donation or production, but the absorption of doses”, summarised French foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Lyon on Wednesday (9 February), joined by health minister Olivier Véran and EU’s health boss Stella Kyriakides.

“Countries in Africa have used less than a third of the vaccines that have been delivered”, Kyriakides confirmed.

The three EU leaders met at a summit organised by the French presidency to discuss a common approach of the 27 to fight the pandemic, particularly in developing countries.

For Jean-Yves Le Drian, the presence of the ministry of foreign affairs is explained by the fact that “global health has become a geopolitical area marked by divergent visions. Europe must defend its own approach.”

At the same time, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced during a visit to Senegal that the EU would donate an additional €125 million to the Team Europe project, which aims to develop and encourage vaccination in Africa.

While in Europe 70% of citizens had a complete vaccination schedule, in Africa this figure is barely 10%.

However, in order to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccination rate for the world population, currently at 54%, must be increased. “The EU will not have beaten this pandemic until the world has beaten it”, Kyriakides said.

To facilitate access to vaccines for developing countries, initiatives have been put in place such as the COVAX scheme, created by the WHO and the GAVI Alliance, which aims to share doses of vaccine.

Since the scheme’s inception, the EU has already shared 407 million vaccines, exporting half of the vaccines it produces. But while sending doses is one thing, “vaccinating people is another,” Kyriakides acknowledges.

Of the one billion doses sent by COVAX, millions were thrown away. This is due to the difficulties of transporting the vaccines, which have to travel under very strict conditions, especially at very low temperatures, or to the weakness of the local health systems.

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Strengthening the work of NGOs, providing the necessary medical equipment

To achieve this, European leaders agree that it is necessary first of all to “strengthen the WHO” and the work of NGOs on the ground.

Recently, France supported a UNICEF pilot project that allows vaccine recipients to use the vaccines. “This is particularly the case for Benin and Sierra Leone. For 20 million euros, we are financing nurses, medical equipment and hospitals”, Olivier Véran explained.

Then, it is necessary to respond to technical problems. “We need to help hospitals, doctors and nurses to have access to the necessary equipment and technology,” Kyriakides said, adding that some African ministers had already set up “impressive” infrastructures.

For Jean-Yves Le Drian, the vaccine must arrive “technically” and “culturally”.

“We need a special treatment according to the cultures of the different states concerned, with indispensable support from the African Union and the WHO to win this campaign,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs declared.

Problems of transport and internal connectivity are obstacles that must be overcome. To this end, vaccine production projects are underway in South Africa, Rwanda, Senegal and Egypt, Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

The ministers and the commissioner also agreed that it was necessary to look beyond the COVID epidemic and help the health systems of African countries in the long term to respond to other diseases such as HIV or tuberculosis.

“We need to build long-term resilience and provide universal access to medicines,” Kyriakides said, concluding that “the EU must continue to play its leadership role”.

Strengthening health systems in Africa will be on the agenda of next week’s EU-African Union summit in Brussels.

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[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna and Nathalie Weatherald]

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