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COVID-19 vaccine nationalism harming pandemic recovery efforts in Africa

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COVID-19 vaccine equity can accelerate end to pandemic, according to Africa Health 2021 speaker Professor Morgan Chetty.

"Vaccine nationalism failed to respect human rights," according to Professor Morgan Chetty, Chairman of the IPA Foundation of SA and Chairman of KwaZulu Natal Doctors Healthcare Coalition, speaking at Africa Health 2021 on access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

While wealthier nations, such as the US, UK and Canada, amassed COVID-19 vaccines and mass vaccinated up to 80 per cent of their population with the first or second dose, poorer countries are still grappling with the idea of trying to obtain access to vaccines that could take years.

Vaccine nationalism has resulted in low-income countries having to endure a long wait, as late as 2023 or 2024, before gaining access to sufficient vaccine doses. There is currently a resurgence of the virus in a dozen African countries, “and the window of opportunity for blunting the effects of these new outbreaks is rapidly closing upon us,” Prof Chetty said. 

“If everyone was united towards developing a solid solution to be shared globally, the pandemic would be manageable,” he urged.

Africa has faced COVID-19 vaccine issues including hesitancy, inertia, literacy, and access, along with limited production capacity, infrastructure and logistical challenges in terms of the cold chain, and insufficiently skilled human resources for the implementation of vaccine programmes.

“While Africa needs to vaccinate 67 to 70 percent of the population to reach herd immunity currently, just 2.55 percent of the population have had their first dose in Africa, and only 1 percent have had two doses. We are perfectly poised to be targets for more surges and for a projected pandemic,” he cautioned.

Prof Chetty further relayed that in the short term, there should be a focus on vaccine acquisition to manage the present crisis. Long term plans requiring vaccines to be manufactured in Africa may mitigate both costs and availability of vaccines.

“When national leaders meet, they need to shift the focus from their own citizens and analyse how we can globally control this virus. The pandemic may continue to circle the globe for much longer or indefinitely, and they may be numerous outbreaks due to the nature of the virus, which replicates, creating a new strain.

Therefore, if we do not work in a global sense, countries which are hailed as superpowers are not going to read reach herd immunity,” Prof Chetty advised.

COVAX was initiated to distribute vaccines equitably throughout the world, based on where it is needed the most.

“Wealthy countries put money into contracts, they proceeded with bilateral negotiations and prepaid even before the vaccine was manufactured or before the clinical trials were finished. When the vaccines were released under Emergency Use Authorisation, these countries received millions of doses of the vaccine.

Countries like Africa are still waiting for allocations. These bilateral negotiations and acquiring the vaccine through the back door defeated the purpose of COVAX. The intention of COVAX, for equitable distribution of vaccines in Africa, did not take place. A newspaper article has reported that Canada has extra doses of vaccines, and they are seeking which countries to partner with to share the vaccines. However, the question arises, if they are unable to partner with countries these vaccines will expire and be wasted.

On the other hand, there is no assurance of these vaccines' effectiveness on strains that are circulating in different parts of the world. I want to conclude by saying, we are in a predicament because our governance principles were violated,” he said.

Prof Chetty remains optimistic. “The good news is that Africa has announced three centers in which the vaccines will be manufactured, so remanufactured in the continent for the continent. Vaccines prepacked in South Africa, in Port Elizabeth, for Johnson and Johnson, and we know there's a company in Cape Town that's going to license to fill in for the Pfizer group.

In Morocco, Sinopharm will be manufactured, and with this we're going to have a bigger turnover, which is a very good start, as we are manufacturing our own vaccines at a cost we can afford, and in quantities we need, for Africa,” he concluded.

Register to attend Africa Health 2021 (25-29 October 2021) for free. Registered attendees may watch the full session here.

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