By Ehichioya Ezomon
The issue of “vaccine nationalism” has taken root amid worries over inadequate or irregular delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries, especially in Africa, that are behind in inoculation.
Of the billion plus vaccine doses administered worldwide, “31 per cent have gone to North America, and under two per cent have gone to Africa” that faces threats of a new, more infectious South African virus variant, 501Y.V2, discovered in December 2020.
With a surge in infections and deaths in India that’s the main artery of getting the AstraZeneca vaccine administered in Africa; and the COVID-19 vaccine “owners” racing to help out India, Africa will have to wait longer than even anticipated at the best of times.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo lately speaks against hoarding of the coronavirus vaccines, warning that current trends in global distribution “is headed towards vaccine nationalism.”
Prof. Osinbajo says leaders must apply the principle of fairness in addressing challenges in health, the economy, and other issues. He spoke at a virtual forum organised by the Liberty University, an American Christian University, with the theme: “Equity for Africa: Transforming the World through Judeo-Christian Values.
“The principle of fairness obliges us, as people of faith, to strive to build a fairer world, a world which takes account of the interests of the poor and marginalised,” Osinbajo said, adding, “It means a world that does not impose unfair burdens on developing countries when global cooperation is required.”
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) echoes Osinbajo’s anxiety over a seeming lack of “global cooperation” in equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
John Nkengasong, head of the Africa CDC, told reporters on April 15 that, “We cannot predict when the second doses will come and that is not good for our vaccination programme.
“Africa lags behind most other regions in COVID-19 vaccinations, with just less than 14 million doses having been administered on the continent of 1.3 billion,” Nkengasong said, using Ghana as an example of the dilemma faced by African countries.
Administering around 742,000 of the 815,000 doses it had received, and about running out, “Ghana, even if they had the money, will not know where to go get the vaccine,” Nkengasong said. “We are in a bind as a continent. Access to vaccines has been limited for us.”
The World Health Organisation has forewarned in February 2021 of the danger countries withholding COVID-19 vaccines from other countries posed to their own citizens.
“Once countries with vaccines have vaccinated their health workers and older people, the best way to protect the rest of their own population is to share vaccines to other countries,” WHO said.
“The longer it takes to vaccinate those most at risk everywhere, the more likely the virus will mutate and evade vaccines,” the global health body said in a weekly epidemiological update.
Similarly, the Executive Director of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr. Faisal Shuaibu, has fingered “a global shortfall of COVID-19 vaccines” as arising from “vaccine nationalism” by producing countries, and manufacturers not meeting their projected targets.
Reuters/NAN reports that the WHO-backed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility has delivered majority of the vaccines available in African countries, and “aims to deliver 600 million shots (for the two-dose jab) to some 40 countries this year, to vaccinate 20 per cent of their populations.”
The Serum Institute of India that produces AstraZeneca’s vaccine administered majorly in Africa, suspended its exports in March, “to meet rising domestic demand amid a surge in COVID-19 cases,” with new infections setting global daily record of over 300,000.
Between March and April, Nigeria was expected, via the African Acquisition Task team, to take delivery of 41 million doses of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.
NPHCDA’s executive director, Dr Shuaib, who stated this, revealed that the COVAX facility had informed it would supply Nigeria with about 16 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in February.
Nigeria has received four million AstraZeneca doses, with no clear timeframe to receive the shortfall – due to incapacity to participate in vaccine clinical trials, and thus couldn’t monitor their production and distribution, and pick a vaccine(s) suitable for its population.
The dire situations painted by Prof. Osinbajo, Mr Nkengasong, the WHO and Dr Shuaibu might affect those that have received their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine in several African countries.
For instance, Nigeria has four phases for inoculation of its 208 million citizens, beginning with the first phase involving frontline health workers, other frontline workers and strategic leaders.
Nigeria, which has administered the AstraZeneca vaccine on 1,191,563 citizens (0.6 per 100 people) as at April 30, aligns its immunization eligibility period “between the first and second doses of the vaccine from 12 weeks to between eight and 12 weeks.”
The inoculation commenced on March 5, and recipients of the first shot will begin their second jab from May 4 (eight-week interval) or June 3 (12-week interval). Yet, with one day left from today, May 3, Nigeria hasn’t taken deliveries of note of COVID-19 vaccines.
With such uncertainty over fresh consignments, experts have urged the government to prioritize the vaccination of only “two million citizens… who are sure of getting their second shot of the vaccine” from the first four million doses it has received.
On that premise, Dr. Shuaibu said Nigeria “needs to reassess its vaccine supply forecasts” and “take the decision to ensure that everyone, who has taken the vaccine in the current phase, gets the second dose before the next consignment is delivered.”
The government has rationalized the vaccination by preserving 50 per cent of available vaccines for the second shot, with each state, and the FCT, administering only 50 per cent of allocated doses.
“The remaining 50 per cent will be administered to clients who had earlier received the first dose and this would be scheduled between 8-12 weeks from the date of their first dose,” Dr Shuaibu said.
Nigeria has signed off to receive up to 29.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine; and deliveries from COVAX by the end of May or early June 2021,” and Dr Shuaibu said by then, “we would have completed the process of administering the second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to those who got the first dose.”
May this optimism turn into reality, so that Nigeria, despite global “vaccine nationalism” by powerful nations, would smoothly roll out the second phase of COVID-19 inoculation of its population.
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* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos