Africa ‘not yet ready’ to introduce COVID-19 vaccines

COVID-19 testing
COVID-19 testing Copyright: World Bank / Henitsoa Rafalia, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  • WHO and partners created COVID-19 vaccine introduction readiness tool
  • Data from 40 African countries indicate average readiness of 35 per cent
  • African countries need comprehensive COVID-19 vaccination roadmap, says expert

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[NAIROBI] African countries are unprepared to introduce COVID-19 vaccines, which poses a serious threat to the global fight against the disease, scientists say.

The COVID-19 vaccine readiness assessment tool spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners examines countries’ plans for COVID-19 vaccine introduction.

The tool covers areas such as planning and coordination, resources and funding, and vaccine regulations, as well as logistical capabilities, communications and community engagement.

According to a WHO statement released last month, the African region had an average score of 33 per cent readiness for a COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which is well below the desired WHO benchmark of 80 per cent.

“Based on self-reports made by the countries, we moved from 33 per cent…to 35 per cent [readiness] by the first week of December.”

Phionah Atuhebwe, WHO Regional Office for Africa

“Based on self-reports made by the countries, we moved from 33 per cent…to 35 per cent [readiness] by the first week of December,” says Phionah Atuhebwe, vaccines introduction medical officer at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, adding that the analysis is based on data from 40 African countries.

Atuhebwe says that most countries lack properly trained healthcare workers, guidelines and monitoring and evaluation tools.

She says that Africa suffers from serious resource mobilisation and income gaps, compared to high income countries, and early preparation is necessary.

“In Africa we do not even have data on the number of the elderly. Our systems take long to ramp up these things,” Atuhebwe says. “All factors in life depend on preparations and we don’t want the vaccine to be ready and we start fumbling with its distribution.”

According to Atuhebwe, when vaccines are licensed and approved, Africa will expect from COVAX facility enough doses to provide protection to an initial 20 per cent of the African population. An additional five per cent will be co-financed with a country’s government if they wish to go above the 20 per cent. “Beyond that countries will be solely responsible for acquiring and distributing the vaccines”.

COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), a global collaboration aimed at speeding up the development, manufacture and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, was launched in June by the WHO and partners. As of last week (18 December), 190 countries had subscribed to COVAX, according to the WHO.

Tolbert Nyenswah, a senior research associate at US-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who once served as Liberia’s deputy minister of health, says that Africa’s health systems are severely challenged, with unreliable stocks of essential medicines, little to no electricity to maintain the cold chain needed to transport vaccines, high medical fees for patients, and poor access to health facilities.

“For example, in the African region, maintaining a cold chain for a minus 70 degrees Celsius vaccine presents formidable challenges, and even minus 20 degrees Celsius presents obstacles,” he tells SciDev.Net.

Large-scale vaccination programmes will be an ‘uphill battle’ for the region and will require collective action, Nyenswah says.

Africa’s governments and institutions, he says, should take the lead and begin developing actionable COVID-19 immunisation rollout plans.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.