Covid-19 vaccine given in Zimbabwe

A nurse administers the Sputnik V vaccine at Mbare Poly Clinic on July 9, 2021 in Harare, Zimbabwe, where the government is using vaccines from Russia and China to protect the population from Covid-19. (Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images)

Rich Nations Hoard Enough Extra Vaccines for All African Adults as Continent's Crisis Intensifies

"As Africa is now facing its third and biggest Covid wave so far, it is getting left behind in the race for vaccine doses," said the head of UNAIDS. "This vaccine apartheid is unacceptable."

Boosting pressure on rich nations to stop hoarding coronavirus vaccines, the World Health Organization revealed Thursday that Africa saw a 43% rise in Covid-19 deaths from the previous week, which notably had been described as the continent's "most dire pandemic week ever."

"Collaboration and solidarity are prerequisites for success in a pandemic. Unfortunately, beyond scientific discovery, they have rarely been displayed globally."
--The Lancet

The latest figures from the United Nations agency are for the week that ended July 11. Africa recorded 6,273 deaths, compared with 4,384 deaths in the previous "dire" week. Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia accounted for 83% of the new deaths.

The continent's case fatality rate, or proportion of deaths in the context of all confirmed cases, is 2.6%, compared with a global average of 2.2%, according to WHO. Covid-19 cases in Africa have been rising for eight weeks straight as the highly contagious Delta variant has continued to spread--so far it has been detected in 21 African countries.

"Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa. "Under-resourced health systems in countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment, and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill Covid patients."

WHO's statement also highlighted vaccine shortages, noting that 52 million people across Africa have received shots since March--representing just 1.6% of the 3.5 billion people vaccinated worldwide. A mere 1.5% of the continent's population, or 18 million Africans, are fully vaccinated, compared with double-digit rates in various wealthy nations.

"The double barrier of vaccine scarcity and treatment challenges is seriously undermining effective response to the surging pandemic," said Moeti. "However, with the expected fresh vaccine shipments and strong preventive measures, we can still turn the tide against the virus."

While Moeti expressed hope about shipments in the months ahead, including from the WHO-led COVAX initiative, the New York Timesreported Friday that 60 million fewer doses were delivered from January and May than was forecast, and "even if everything goes according to plan, COVAX officials project they won't be able to deliver more than 200 million doses to Africa, enough to fully vaccinate around 7% of the population, until October."

As the newspaper detailed:

There is little room for African countries to buy doses on their own: Almost all of the vaccines forecast to be made in 2021 have already been sold, according to data from Airfinity, an analytics firm. Most of the surplus supply includes Chinese vaccines and an Indian vaccine, Covaxin.

Some of the world's richest countries will have 1.9 billion doses more than they need to vaccinate their populations by the end of August, according to the One campaign. The size of their excess supply has drawn the ire of African leaders, scientists and rights groups, who have called for accountability and warned that protectionism and stockpiling would only contribute to prolonging the pandemic.

The One campaign says that those 1.9 billion surplus doses are "enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of Africa."

Andrea Taylor, an assistant director at the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, told the Times that "COVAX is a really lovely idea," but "it didn't take into account how human behavior actually works in real life. It didn't assume that wealthy countries would act in their own self-interest, and it should have done so."

WHO's updates on Africa and the "the fastest surge in cases the continent has seen so far" came the same day that U.S. President Joe Biden met with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During their bilateral summit, justice campaigners placed body bags outside the White House, recognizing the preventable deaths caused by rich nations' refusal to temporarily waive intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments in order to boost production and distribution, particularly for poorer countries that have had limited access to doses.

Although Biden won global praise in May for finally backing the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver--which India and South Africa first introduced at the World Trade Organization (WTO) back in October--the U.S. leader has since faced criticism for failing to convince key allies to join him, including after his meeting with Merkel.

"This summit was a failure," charged Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, urging Biden to "prioritize getting the WTO waiver enacted ASAP so more Covid vaccines and treatments can be produced worldwide."

Biden is also facing pressure from U.S. lawmakers. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Thursday that "after watching my family in India fight to survive the latest surge there, I feel personally how vital it is that the U.S. must do everything we can to ensure that no one else has to suffer from an artificial vaccine shortage in the fight against this virus."

Specifically, Jayapal called for "pushing to ensure the TRIPS waiver is implemented" and "investing $35 billion into America's production of vaccines that can quickly assist countries around the world in getting vaccinated."

An editorial from The Lancet on Friday described the Covid-19 crisis in Africa as "a lesson in solidarity."

"This predictable turn of events has been driven by a morally reprehensible lack of vaccine equity (<1% of the population are fully vaccinated), leaving the continent vulnerable to new and more transmissible variants of the virus, behavioral, and economic pandemic fatigue, and complacency," the editorial declared.

"Unless vaccines are rolled out quickly there will be subsequent waves of infection," it said. "But in the face of adversity, the African health community continues to work collaboratively, balancing short-term needs and long-term health security plans, and creating grounds for hope. Collaboration and solidarity are prerequisites for success in a pandemic. Unfortunately, beyond scientific discovery, they have rarely been displayed globally."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.