Is Africa ready to launch a Covid-19 vaccine?

Cape Town – Representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO), the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the University of Nairobi in Kenya met in a webinar to discuss Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine readiness.

Moderator Tsepiso Makwetla welcomed the panel before Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, spoke on the state of development on various candidates for Covid-19 vaccines and where Africa stands. “With three Covid-19 candidates showing high efficacy, many countries are eager and determined to get the vaccine on time. We know that African countries are concerned and hope that millions of doses of vaccine will not be harmed by affluent countries.” Said Moeti.

She said vaccination in combination with tried and tested social health measures would help end the pandemic. “As the Covid-19 vaccine is rolled out in phases, it will become the largest vaccination rate in the history of the continent and indeed the history of the world,” Moeti said.

Moeti explained that the work of the WHO had the global health body collaborate with partners to prepare for this unprecedented initiative, adding that 40 of the 47 countries in the African region that received tools for assessment tools shared information about their willingness to have a Covid- 19 deployment of vaccines.

“What we are seeing is that the average readiness point so far is 33%, which is far below the desired benchmark of 80%. We are doubling our planning and preparation because it will make or break this unprecedented effort,” Moeti said. “In our region, we are helping countries to develop their Covid-19 vaccination plans by leveraging our extensive network of polio, vaccination and other public health personnel on the ground led by WHO representatives.”

Moeti talked about the role that communities played in stopping the spread of Covid-19 and that it would be central in the deployment of vaccines. “It is critical that authorities reach out to communities, listen to their concerns and give people a voice in implementing the delivery strategies,” Moeti said. She added that it was critical to counter anti-vaccine information, and called on colleagues and journalists to ensure that the vaccine story continues to focus on equality in the coming months.

Moeti said Africa had an increase in the number of Covid-19 infections across the continent, which she said was worrying. “The curve is going up a bit again as we go into the holiday season when people will be traveling. It is therefore important that we continue to take the precautionary measures and that sharpened, proactive capabilities for public health are in place to increase business,” Said Moeti.

Makwetla opened the speech to Professor Helen Rees, Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, who was asked to discuss the pros and cons of different vaccines and what should be taken into account in their spread across Africa. “I think it’s clear that the first thing you need to have is an effective and safe vaccine, and the good news is that early results from three candidates are that they have all started showing really promising results,” Rees said.

Rees asked what it was about the vaccines that should be considered primarily after approval. “Well, we have to ask how many doses should we give? The thing that has gotten a lot of attention recently is the ultra cold chain with the RNA vaccines,” Rees said. The ultra cold chain refers to ultra cold freezers needed to store the vaccines, which has recently had an increase in demand. Rees said the explosion of the vaccine in Africa with the kind of consideration to be considered would be difficult.

Rees then discussed the potential efficacy of the vaccines. “We heard that the overall efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine was 62%, but after looking at a lower initial dose and larger dose taken later, it increased to 90%. The efficacy and safety of these trials is going to be very important, “she said.

Rees said another consideration should be given to whether these vaccines work in certain groups. “Given the fact that people older than 60 are at higher risk, how effective is any vaccine against another in that age group?”, Ress said, adding that the effectiveness of vaccines among older people is declining. Rees pointed out that it would be a greater concern for countries with older populations and less for the African region where most countries have a younger demographic.

Rees raised the issue of cost. “The newer mRNA vaccines are much more expensive when we compare them to, for example, the AstraZeneca vaccine which is a more established type of vaccine platform,” Rees said. She added that cost to countries conducting bilateral negotiations would be a major factor, even for countries using the COVAX facility. According to Gavi, COVAX is one of three pillars of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) accelerator, launched in April by the WHO, the European Commission and France in response to this pandemic. To bring together governments, global health organizations, manufacturers, scientists, the private sector, civil society and philanthropy, with the aim of providing innovative and equitable access to Covid-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

Rees briefly mentions the hesitation of vaccines, something she says gets a lot of attention due to the spread of misinformation. ‘For the African region we had a problem at the beginning of the pandemic, unfortunately two French doctors unfortunately had a conversation where it seems that it is a good idea to come to Africa to do research on clinical trials do. It is considered possible that the African region is being considered a guinea pig, “Rees said, adding that it had created a negative dialogue.

Professor Pontiano Kaleebu, director of Uganda Virus Research Institute, then had the opportunity to address the panel and talk about Covid-19 vaccine trials in Africa. “About 35 vaccine candidates have entered the human trial phase and I am pleased that Africa is making a contribution, especially South Africa,” Kaleebu said.

Kenya, Kaleebu said, recently joined the Oxford vaccine trial while a Phase 1 trial is underway in Uganda, although it has been delayed. “We went through some preparatory studies and went to communities to understand what knowledge they have about vaccines, and we are excited to see that there is a lot of interest in vaccine trials,” he said.

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