The African Union is deeply upset about an apparent discriminatory policy by the European Union in travel bans for people vaccinated with the World Health Organisation-backed AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India.
Further, with a paltry one percent of Africa’s population vaccinated as the delta strain of the Covid-19 sweeps across the continent leaving a trail of death and suffering, the AU is citing bias in the global distribution of the available doses.
Only a trickle of vaccination donations are coming in from wealthy countries. Major moves to quicken commercial vaccine rollout across the continent have come too late to prevent calamities, the AU says.
On Thursday, when the EU digital programme Green Pass came into effect, AU officials leading the war on the coronavirus could not hide their exasperation with the treatment of Africans by Europe.
The Green Pass is a vaccine passport that allows people to travel within the EU from July 1, 2021, as long as they have had one of four certified vaccines: Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna, Vaxzervria by AstraZeneca-Oxford and Janssen by Johnson&Johnson. It will also provide data about whether the person had Covid, has recovered or was recently tested.
While Vaxzervria, the AstraZeneca vaccine produced and authorised in Europe, is on the EU list, Covishield, produced under licence by the Serum Institute of India — and largely distributed in Africa — is excluded.
Covishield is the backbone of the WHO-supported Covax contributions to Africa. But the new policy means that persons who received the Covishield doses, despite being able to demonstrate proof of vaccination, will face public health restrictions, including limitation of movement.
At least one percent of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, Covishield.
On Thursday, two AU officials leading the fight against Covid-19, Strive Masiyiwa and John Nkengasong, criticised Europe for abandoning Africa at its hour of need.
“It came as a big surprise to us that a vaccine that had been financially supported by the Europeans, will not be allowed on the list of vaccines that were recognised through the Green Pass process in Europe,” said Dr Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
“Anyone who cares about this pandemic in the true sense should be frustrated,” Dr Nkengasong added.
Addressing journalists in the weekly Africa CDC Covid-19 briefing, Masiyiwa, the AU Special Envoy steering the Covid-19 African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, described the EU move as absurd, noting that Europe has been pushing Africa to acquire the Indian AstraZeneca vaccines, only to turn around and bar those vaccinated with it from its territory.
“We met with (France President Emmanuel) Macron and the African Union leaders, and President Macron represented the donors who finance Covax. The vaccines distributed through Covax were purchased with their money, so how do we get to a situation where they tell us that those vaccines they gave money to Covax to go to India to purchase are not valid?” he posed, “I’m not even going to debate that point, it’s self-evident where the problem is.”
“But it’s not the only problem we have with the EU — and let me address the EU: The EU has vaccine factories… It has vaccine production centres across Europe, but not a single dose has left a European factory for Africa,” he said. “When we talk to them, they tell us that they are maxed out meeting the needs of Europe. We are referred to India, where a number of manufacturers are making vaccines like the AstraZeneca vaccine under licence.”
He said the EU needs to decide whether it really intends to support Africa in the fight against the virus.
“They have vaccinated so many of their own people that they can now watch football without masks. But our people have not been vaccinated… Now is the time for Europe to open up its production facilities so that we can buy vaccines. We are not asking for donations; we have money to buy vaccines.”
Africa, with only 1.07 percent of its population fully vaccinated, is in the throes of an “extremely aggressive,” third surge of infections. The continent registered a 23 percent increase in deaths over the past week and had 5.5 million confirmed infections as the more infectious variants of the virus continued to spread.
Covax, a WHO-backed instrument that was meant to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines and which had promised to deliver 700 million doses to Africa by December 2021 with financing from the donor community, had by mid-year only delivered fewer than 50 million doses.
Masiyiwa says Covax withheld crucial information, including that key donors failed to meet their funding pledges.
“Africans are disappointed,” Mr Masiyiwa said, adding that a vaccine manufacturing initiative in South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare might be the only way to turn around Africa’s fortunes.
Aspen is sourcing Covid-19 vaccine ingredients from Johnson & Johnson to package in South Africa, a process known as fill and finish.
At least 51 African countries and 14 Caribbean states had paid up for the JNJ.N vaccines. At least 41 countries have sought World Bank loans for the purchases. Vaccine suppliers require advance purchases, and the World Bank only lends to countries once vaccines are available. African countries have also created a purchasing platform to raise $2 billion to improve their buying power via the Afreximbank.
Meanwhile the US is shipping Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines in support of their donations to the continent. Africa requires 800 million vaccines for a single-dose regime to meet the goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the population.
On Thursday, the Africa CDC announced that the first shipments of single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines from a commercial deal will be delivered in August, and the first shipments of vaccines from US donations through Covax to 51 countries in Africa will begin next week. Dr Nkengasong described the announcement as “a saving grace.”
But other top officials have been furious about the lack of progress, resorting to publicly shaming countries that are vaccinating even those with low-risk profiles while many African countries are experiencing a long-avoided yet dreaded surge in severe cases and deaths.
Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said the notion that supposed hesitancy among Africans to take the vaccine led to the shortage shows that a current of racism ran beneath platitudes by world leaders about working together.
“The level of paternalism, the level of colonial mind-set that says, ‘We can’t give you something because we’re afraid you won’t use it,’” he said. “I mean, seriously, in the middle of a pandemic?”
“Just give us the vaccines,” said Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
Some of the worst-hit countries, such as Namibia, which now has the second-highest rate of infection in the world, are down to their last doses. Namibia staked its vaccination plan on Covax, but India’s export restrictions in the wake of its own surge have essentially suspended the initiative.
Namibia’s third wave
“The third wave we are experiencing currently has impacted all corners of our country with devastating ferocity,” Namibian Health Minister Kalumbi Shangula said at a news conference Wednesday. “There is hardly a family or community in this country that has not been touched. Our country is literally in an existential struggle against this pandemic.”
Namibia has received donations of 100,000 Sinopharm doses from China and 30,000 AstraZeneca doses from India. Despite paying Covax, it has received only 24,000 doses out of 108,000 allocated by the facility.
Measured at the continental level, cases have risen at an increasing pace each week since the beginning of May, when researchers began noticing a greater frequency of the delta variant in sequenced genomes.
“It’s as bad as we feared,” said Tulio de Oliveira at South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, one of the region’s main sequencing units. In the span of just a few weeks, he said, the delta variant had all but completely taken over in South Africa from the previously dominant beta variant.
If more people were vaccinated, de Oliveira said, “we’d have similar or a large number of infections but people who get infected wouldn’t be hospitalised. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised over the next few weeks that the delta variant will start dominating the whole of Southern Africa.”
Dr Nkengasong said that although infection rates in Namibia and South Africa are worrying, other countries such as Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia are in the throes of similar waves.
“None of them have peaked yet,” he said.
Uganda is just a third of the way through a six-week national shutdown in which only essential workers are allowed to leave home. The only market businesses allowed to remain open are food stalls, and then only if the vendors sleep on their property, which often consists of a wooden cart or kiosk.
The government announced a cash transfer programme that would give half a million urban households about $28 each to soften the blow of income loss, but many in the now-deserted capital, Kampala, said the one-time payment would scarcely be enough to meet their family’s needs. In one grainy video widely shared on social media, police confronted a man who had broken the lockdown restrictions to continue selling perfume on the roadside, even though there was almost no one to sell to.
As four officers towered over him, the man, identified as Rashid Mukisa in a crowdfunding campaign to help him, broke into tears.
“I left home because there was no food, not even a coin,” he cried. “I’m here finding something to eat and you’re chasing me away. What do you think I should do?”
On June 30, Rwanda imposed a partial lockdown to curb the surging cases of Covid-19. A statement from the Prime Minister’s office ordered the closure of schools and universities and prohibited church services, meetings and all social gatherings effective July 1. The 7pm-4am curfew was revised to start at 6pm and end at 4am. Movement between Kigali and other districts was banned except for essential services, while businesses have to close by 5pm. Restaurants are only offering take-away services.
By Pauline Kairu and Washington Post