WHO official urges faster supply of Covid vaccines to Africa as cases surge
Health officials in Africa have called for an urgent acceleration in the supply of vaccines to the continent to curb a new wave of Covid-19 infections and the evolution of new, potentially dangerous variants.
Fewer than one in 100 people on the continent have received a vaccine, meaning the surging infections are likely to kill tens of thousands.
“Africa needs millions more doses here and now,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa. “Africa is in the midst of a full blown third wave … We’ve seen in India and elsewhere how quickly Covid-19 can rebound and overwhelm health systems.”
Officials have welcomed the G7’s pledge to provide 1bn vaccine doses to the developing world but say they need a much greater supply immediately, after cases rose by more than 30% week on week across Africa.
The WHO say the Delta variant is present in 14 countries on the continent and the Beta variant, first detected in South Africa, in 25. At least seven African countries have run out of vaccines and seven more have used 80% of their stocks.
“The challenge we have had on the continent is the unpredictability of the supply … we don’t know when vaccines are coming in. Unless we vaccinate at scale we will see new variants emerge,” said Dr John Nkengasong, director of Africa Centres for Disease Control. “The 1bn doses are not here now. We are hoping they will be here soon.”
Among the worst-hit countries are South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia, Uganda and Namibia. The third wave of infections in South Africa has come after multiple delays to its vaccine programme. The country has recorded 58,000 deaths from Covid, though excess mortality figures suggest the true total is closer to 160,000.
“The rise in cases and deaths [in Africa] is an urgent wake-up call for those lagging behind to rapidly expand vaccination sites, to reach priority groups and to respond to community concerns.” Moeti said.
In Uganda, private and public medical facilities have reported acute shortages of vaccines and oxygen. Hospitals report they are no longer able to admit patients to intensive care.
Dr Jane Aceng, Uganda’s health minister, said on Thursday that her country had received only 1.1m vaccine doses for a population of 45 million, and was dealing with at least five variants with “very aggressive transmission”.
The WHO reported 1,735 new confirmed cases in Uganda on Sunday 13 June, compared with 60 cases on 13 May. Aceng said complacency was in part to blame for the surge.
“The population started thinking Covid was a thing of the past and enforcement became a big challenge. People wanted to have their normal lives and regain their economic ability,” she said.
The international Covax programme, which was supposed to ensure vaccines are shared with poorer countries, was already struggling to obtain supplies before major Indian producers halted exports to serve domestic needs.
Four African countries have not begun vaccination campaigns, though one of these, Tanzania, has now opened discussions to join the Covax programme. Tanzania’s former president John Magufuli, who died in March, had minimised the danger from the disease and rejected WHO advice to start vaccinations or implement other measures to slow its spread.
African countries have reported a total of more than 5m Covid-19 cases, representing 2.9% of all cases globally, according to the Africa CDC, though unreliable data means there is no way of knowing the true extent of the pandemic’s spread on the continent.