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Africa Covid-19 vaccine

A patient gets vaccinated against Covid-19 at the Witkoppen clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 8, 2021. (Photo: Emmanuel Croset/AFP via Getty Images)

WHO Warns 'Vaccine-Deprived' Africa May Not Hit 70% Covid-19 Inoculation Goal Until 2024

"In a world where Africa had the doses and support to vaccinate 70% of its population by the end of 2021," said one WHO expert, "we probably would be seeing tens of thousands of fewer deaths from Covid-19 next year."

Brett Wilkins

Amid warnings that Africa may not reach the goal of vaccinating 70% of the continent's population against Covid-19 until late 2024—a level of inoculation already achieved in many rich countries—public health experts on Tuesday reiterated the imperative to boost African capacity to manufacture and distribute doses, and to end vaccine inequality, for the common benefit of humanity.

"We will never get out of this if we don't work together as one world."

"We will never get out of this if we don't work together as one world," Flavia Senkubuge, president of the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa, said during a World Health Organization (WHO) briefing.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), stressed Tuesday that "it's critical to boost Africa's capability to manufacture and distribute vaccines to fight Covid and other diseases."

According to the WHO, only 20 African nations have fully vaccinated at least 10% of their people as of Monday, while just six countries have met the objective of fully inoculating 40% of their population by the end of 2021. 

"Only two countries—Mauritius and Seychelles—have reached the 70% coverage seen as essential for controlling the pandemic," the agency said. "At the current pace, WHO estimates that it will take until May of 2022 before Africa reaches 40% coverage and August 2024 before it reaches the 70% mark."

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said that "we are cautiously optimistic that deaths and severe illness will remain low in the current wave, but slow vaccine rollout in Africa means both will be much higher than they should be."

"We've known for quite some time now that new variants like Beta, Delta, or Omicron could regularly emerge to spark new outbreaks globally, but vaccine-deprived regions like Africa will be especially vulnerable," she added.

In an opinion piece published Monday in The British Medical Journal, Fatima Hassan of South Africa's Health Justice Initiative, Leslie London of the University of Cape Town's School of Public Health and Family Medicine, and Gregg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Public Health in the U.S. asserted that "no one is safe until everyone is safe."

The authors write:

Let us be clear on how we have ended up in this situation—uneven and slow access to Covid-19 vaccines in the Global South has brought us to this point. There is a way out of this, but pharmaceutical companies are intent on not sharing knowledge to help Africa manufacture vaccines and speed up production, despite taking huge injections of public funding. This is not only unethical, but inequitable and unsustainable. Unequal access to vaccines risks creating a breeding ground for variants.

In the United States, the House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Tuesday afternoon kicked off a remote hearing "examining the urgent need to accelerate global coronavirus vaccination efforts."

"Nearly eight billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, but deep inequities persist in vaccine distribution," the subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), said in a statement.

"The vast majority of these vaccines have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries while low-income countries—most of which are in Africa and the Middle East—have received less than one percent of these shots," the statement continued. "Experts have warned that inconsistent vaccination rates have allowed the coronavirus to continue to spread worldwide and may lead to the emergence of new variants."

"We can still save many lives if we can accelerate the pace of vaccination in early 2022."

Moeti said that "in a world where Africa had the doses and support to vaccinate 70% of its population by the end of 2021—a level many wealthy countries have achieved—we probably would be seeing tens of thousands of fewer deaths from Covid-19 next year."

"But," she stressed, "we can still save many lives if we can accelerate the pace of vaccination in early 2022."

Global health officials' appeals come amid an 83% surge in new Covid-19 cases in Africa over the past week driven by the Delta and Omicron variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to the WHO.

"While the speed of the spread is fast, deaths remain low and even dropped by 19% last week compared with the previous week," the agency said.

WHO officials warned that Omicron-related travel bans are exacerbating obstacles to vaccinating people in African nations. The agency noted that although the continent's share of worldwide Omicron cases is steadily declining, more than 70 countries are imposing travel bans mostly targeting African nations.

"Blanket travel bans have little impact on the course of an epidemic but have a massive socioeconomic effect," said Moeti. "Coming after two years of Covid-19, these new travel restrictions are jeopardizing the health of millions of Africans."

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