Africa takes vaccination into its own hands

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Talks between wealthy nations on how to reported donated Covid vaccines have collapsed after they failed to agree on a common rules regime. c Shutterstock

Africa can’t rely on wealthy nations for help in the face of empty promises, and vaccine hoarding, writes Peter Burdin.

Peter Burdin is a former BBC Africa bureau editor.

Put simply; vaccine inequality is costing developing world lives. This is the view of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who says wealthy G20 nations have monopolised 89% of jabs at the expense of the world’s poorest. Emphasising the scale of the problem, he said: “For every vaccine delivered as first vaccines in the poorest countries, six times as many doses are being administered as third and booster vaccines in the richest parts of the world”. Two years on, we have our fourth globally spreading variant, yet our most vital preventative tool is still denied to billions.

The African continent is at the forefront of this disparity, with vaccination rates of around 9% of the continent’s 1.2 billion population. In poorer African countries like Mali, that figure falls to 1.9%, in South Sudan to 1.4%, and desperately minute in DR Congo where just 0.1% of people have received jabs.

Even in Nigeria, one of Africa’s richest economies, the vaccination rate only slightly exceeds 2%. This comes while Western Europe reaches close to administering an average of 200 doses per 100 people. In light of this, former UK Vaccine Taskforce Head Clive Dix recently said, “We must stop endlessly jabbing in wealthy countries while poorer countries go without”.

The disparity is so stark that it’s prompted a senior member of the Mandela family to describe the lack of vaccination in Africa as “vaccine apartheid”. Ndeleka Mandela, Nelson’s eldest granddaughter, said, “The world needs to recognise that so long as some of us are vulnerable, all of us are. Vaccine apartheid mars the global public health landscape and explains why Covid has caused such disproportionate harm in poorer nations”.

It was not supposed to be like this. When COVAX was launched, it aimed to drive equitable access to jabs and deliver 2.2 billion doses by January 2022. However, slow progress saw this target reduced to 1.4 billion. Large sounding numbers (which have still been missed) were never enough to get the job done, and G20 leaders knew this. Wealthy nations pledged to vaccinate at least 40% of people in every African country by the end of last year. They have unequivocally failed, with only four countries on the mainland hitting that target.

According to African business leader Strive Masiyiwa, Africa has been deliberately sold short. In the early days of the COVID outbreak, he was appointed by the African Union to help procure vaccines. “This was a deliberate global architecture of unfairness”, he says, “COVAX’s goals to provide enough vaccines to vaccinate 20% of our population in Africa while rich countries had a goal of 70%, so global distribution was unequal by design.

“COVAX has delivered only a fraction of the doses it was supposed to. The people who bought the vaccines and those who sold them knew there would be nothing for us. We had money, we were willing to pay in cash upfront and they told us that all capacity for 2021 had been sold”. He concludes, therefore, that Africa must build its own vaccine production infrastructure. That’s already happening with at least a dozen production centres set up or in the pipeline across six African countries.

Companies like the UAE-based G42 has developed a vaccine called Hayat-Vax in partnership with Sinopharm. Their new plant in Abu Dhabi represents the Arab World’s first vaccine production facility and targets millions of its doses on the African continent. Elsewhere, vaccine manufacture is starting up, or due to be in Algeria, Egypt, Senegal and Morocco. The Egyptian government hopes their facility will produce a billion doses a year, whereas Senegal is seeing a $200m manufacturing facility built in partnership with the Pasteur Foundation.

According to Dr Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, the vaccine alliance: “We are delighted to see united support from the GCC, this builds on years of growing funding and assistance for Gavi’s immunisation programmes”. It is clear that the African continent, fed-up with snail-like progress from wealthy western countries, is looking closer to more readily available options to invigorate their vaccine rollout.

Turning directly to closer-by projects like Hayat Vax, seeking to build Africa-based vaccine production infrastructure and partnering with proactive organisations like the Pasteur Foundation represents a reset in Africa’s approach to the pandemic. It means a determination to chart its own future rather than depend on a rich world that despite its promises, continues to cling to its swollen vaccine supplies.

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