Africa is dismayed as India battles the coronavirus over fears of a long-standing deficit in India-made vaccines it needs to help protect its people.
Often referred to as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, India is one of the largest suppliers of AstraZeneca vaccine under the COVAX program to help with immunization in the poorest countries.
But India has been hit by an explosive growth in infections – accelerated, scientists say, by a new variant.
The country has recorded 22 million cases out of a population of 1.3 billion, and a death toll of nearly a quarter of a million.
After sending more than 60 million doses abroad, India announced in late March that it was delaying supplies to other countries as it struggles to meet its own needs.
African Union (AU) health ministers held emergency online talks on Saturday to discuss the vaccine gap.
“The vaccine situation today is extremely complex due to the situation in India,” said Cameroonian virologist John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AU watchdog.
“We hope that there will be a continued supply of vaccines via COVAX from India, but we are watching with horror and disbelief what is happening in India and we do not expect the vaccines to be shipped from there. India soon. “
Of all the continents, Africa has been relatively spared the worst of the pandemic so far, with just over 124,000 officially recorded deaths for 4.6 million cases.
On the other hand, Africa has overcrowded cities, with slums that are fertile ground for the virus and fragile health infrastructure – risk factors that also feature prominently in India’s experience.
The continent administered 19.6 million doses, or just 2% of the global total. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80 percent of the doses were given in richer countries.
Lacking the means to manufacture their own vaccine in bulk, African countries have so far had to turn to the free market or the COVAX program.
The AU’s African Vaccine Procurement Task Force (AVATT) hopes to acquire vaccines under its own program by the end of July or early August, and Nkengasong said that if he hoped that this date could be brought forward, he could not give any guarantee.
Nkengasong said he did not expect the vaccine market to reopen until the third quarter, and urged African leaders to adjust their strategy accordingly.
The variant of the virus that is wreaking havoc in India has already been detected in several African countries, including Kenya, South Africa and Uganda.
Nkengasong pushed for a three-pronged strategy: step up testing; improve prevention through awareness programs; and increase vaccine and oxygen supplies.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pleaded with African countries to maintain the utmost vigilance until the vaccine crisis is resolved.
“What is happening now in many other parts of the world can happen in our Africa if we let our guard down,” he told the AU meeting.
“In many countries, the emergence of rapidly spreading variants, combined with premature relaxation of public health and social measures and the inequitable distribution of vaccines has tragic consequences.”
The AU ministerial meeting called for strict adherence to social distancing guidelines in a continent where there is some resistance to vaccines.
The Democratic Republic of Congo announced at the end of April that it had “redeployed” 1.3 million “surplus” AstraZeneca vaccines in five neighboring countries.
The health ministry admitted that some sections of the population simply refused to take the hit.
In some rich countries, the problem of vaccine under-supply is starting to turn into a problem of surplus.
“The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just a moral scandal. It is also economically and epidemiologically self-destructive, ”said Tedros.