Covid-19: ‘All African countries have the capacity to carry out mass vaccinations’ – Nkengasong

By Léa Masseguin
Posted on Monday, 18 January 2021 17:24

John Nkengasong, Director of Africa CDC, speaks during an interview at the African Union (AU) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 11 March 2020 © REUTERS / Tiksa Negeri

Director of the Africa CDC, the Cameroonian virologist John Nkengasong is the main coordinator of the fight against Covid-19 on the continent and the African Union’s representative on this matter. He insists on the need to stop being dependent on other countries in matters of public health. That starts with the push to procure vaccines.

What means can African countries use today to obtain the vaccine against COVID-19?

John N. Nkengasong: Africa currently relies on three mechanisms. Firstly, COVAX –  coordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in collaboration with the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – which aims to vaccinate 20% of the most vulnerable people in 92 low-income countries, most of them on the continent. However, our goal is to vaccinate at least 60% of Africa’s population in order to achieve herd immunity and slow the spread of COVID-19.

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To close this 40% gap, the African Union has launched its own initiative. The African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) has just acquired 270 million doses, 50 million of which will be available in April and June. Finally, some countries such as Morocco and Egypt have opted for clinical trials on their soil, after negotiating with foreign pharmaceutical laboratories.

Can we speak about “rich” countries’ monopoly of doses at the expense of lower-income countries?

Indeed, several rich countries have bought many more doses – sometimes three to five times more – than they need. This poses a big problem for Africans. It’s time to review the immunisation policy internationally, now that several vaccines are known to be effective.

Are you advocating for the abandonment of intellectual property rights?

Yes, the COVID-19 vaccine should be seen as a tool that will benefit all of humanity. If everyone realises this, Africa will be a winner, including when it comes to local production.

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Precisely, how can African countries be encouraged to produce their own vaccines?

African countries must invest in the development of their own capacity to create the necessary instruments (manufacture of vaccines, diagnostics, medicines…), which are essential to guaranteeing the health of their population. This will considerably reduce dependence on other countries.

The current pandemic is certainly unprecedented, but not unexpected. It has highlighted serious limitations in Africa, whose demographics are changing rapidly. These include the lack of specialised public health institutions, a shortage of health workers and the absence of a surveillance system. Africa is also not capable of providing diagnostics and still depends on importing more than 99% of its vaccines and therapies. Every year, infectious diseases cost the lives of more than 227 million people and produce an annual economic toll of more than $600bn.

African nations are looking to countries such as China and Russia to get doses more quickly. Can we speak of a “war of influence?”

African states are free to turn to the countries they want to get the doses that are slow to arrive. China, for its part, is aware that it will not be able to win the battle against COVID-19 on its own, hence the search for partnerships. Africa is open to partnerships with countries that can help us. And this does not always happen through the state, but also through foundations, as was the case with billionaire Jack Ma’s foundation, which donated testing kits and masks to the African continent.

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Should we be concerned about the effectiveness of these vaccines?

All these vaccines are very effective and of good quality. Interim results from the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine trials have shown that the vaccine protects against symptomatic disease in 70% of cases. The manufacturers of the Russian vaccines have indicated that their Sputnik V is about 91% effective and have promised to share the results with us.

Does Africa currently have the means to launch mass vaccination campaigns?

All African countries have the capacity to implement these campaigns. However, they will have to meet four conditions: increase vaccine storage capacity, train enough health workers, set up a database for monitoring, and have sufficient funding. Most countries are in the midst of preparations, and the Africa CDC has already developed immunisation strategies.

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