African immunization experts call for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines

By Verenardo Meeme

November 25, 2020

Immunization experts in Africa are urging the international community and African countries to take concrete actions to ensure the continent has equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has joined the experts in making this appeal as positive results emerge in the search for a vaccine that provides effective protection against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“Too often, African countries end up at the back of the queue for new technologies, including vaccines,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. “These life-saving products must be available to everyone, not only those who can afford to pay.”

The African Union (AU) has endorsed Africa’s need to develop a framework to actively engage in the development of and access to COVID-19 vaccines. Countries can take steps now to strengthen health systems, improve immunization delivery and pave the way for the introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Ouma Anzala, professor of virology and immunology and lead researcher at the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) at the Institute of Clinical Research, University of Nairobi, concurs with the AU’s position.

“Africa should start planning logistics and distribution of vaccines,” Anzala told journalists during a webinar conducted today by the Africa Science Media Centre. “The cold chain [required] for distribution for the vaccine is not going to be similar to the usual child vaccines.”

Governments urged to allocate resources

Anzala, who has actively participated in COVID-19 vaccine research, is urging African governments to allocate adequate resources to place Africa on par with pharmaceutical interventions amid the positive breakthrough in the search for COVID-19 vaccines.

“For the longest period I have been a medical doctor,” Anzala said. “I know very well that the best hope in any infectious disease is a vaccine. Even in places where we have treatment people die, but vaccines save lives, and it does this in two ways: Either they can offer protection from the disease or offer protection from infections. It means that once you have been vaccinated, you are likely not going to get infected with COVID 19 virus.”

Kenya and South Africa have participated in vaccine clinical trials, which have shown progress. But scientists say African countries are unlikely to allocate enough funds to purchase the vaccines, pinning their hopes on donors. Meanwhile, developed countries have already started allocating resources to buy and distribute the vaccines.

Kenya participated in the first phase of the trials as the country continues to record an increased rate of coronavirus infections. Anzala cautioned that even more infections are likely due to spreader events, such as crowding in bars, weddings and parties, as the festive season approaches.

Anzala said it is important to prioritize who should get the vaccine first. This is critical for people at higher risk of getting infected and experiencing complications and it is a subject that policymakers should promptly discuss.

‘‘We have a problem of anti-vaccines; their concerns must be discussed,” he said, recalling the delays and refusals that occurred in Kenya when Catholic clergy advised the faithful against vaccination, even to prevent diseases such as polio.

“These are issues that must be discussed now as various countries gear for the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, he added. “There is need for a serious dialogue with all healthcare professionals, communities, opinion leaders, leaders, policymakers, churches and the media.”

Anzala is urging East African nations to come together and negotiate for vaccines to save lives, especially among the elderly.

“With older age, there is an increased mortality even without the comorbidities,” he said. “Shielding of the elderly and those with comorbidities is vital because we know once they get infected, the outcome is critical.”

Convey the correct information

Anzala appealed to the media to share only credible and verified information from experts with the public. “We have seen some media houses spreading propaganda, causing fear and anxiety,” he said. “This has brought a spike of mental illness cases.

The vaccines now showing efficacy will save lives and stop the transmission of the virus, Anzala said, and the scientists working on them are solid professionals.

The top three vaccine candidates are based on platforms that have been previously used. However, the vaccine candidates have competing interests, such as speed and safety.

“We want pharmaceutical-based interventions because we know that a particular one will work properly,’’ he added, warning that infections will continue if nothing changes, in terms of people failing to observe non-pharmaceutical interventions (mask-wearing, social distancing) that have been put in place.

Testing other promising vaccines

East Africa should opt for a COVID-19 consortium as experts continue to study these vaccines and see which are most appropriate for African populations, he advised.

South Africa and Kenya have participated in the Oxford University vaccine trials. Anzala said it also would be appropriate to test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to better understand their performance in an African setting.

One key issue is how vaccines can adapt to Africa’s existing distribution frameworks, he said. For example, the freezers that can store some vaccines at the required -70-degree Celsius temperature are not common in Africa.

The main challenge will be distribution and administration and not necessarily the per-person dosage cost, he said.

“If it all goes well, I see towards the end of first quarter 2021 two vaccines that are in frontline could be available, but this could be expedited if African countries start budgeting to purchase the vaccines,’’ Anzala said. He indicated that the African Union is interested in negotiating to fund access to vaccines without necessarily depending on the donor community.