'Huge' impact on deaths and economies if Africa left behind for Covid vaccine, top official warns

Shola Lawal
Vaccine trials like this one in Johannesburg, South Africa, are taking place, but there are fears that wider populations across Africa will be unable to access a jab - Reuters
Vaccine trials like this one in Johannesburg, South Africa, are taking place, but there are fears that wider populations across Africa will be unable to access a jab - Reuters

Africa is unlikely to be able to start coronavirus vaccinations until April next year, according to the continent's top public health official.

The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr John Nkengasong, warned that leaving countries behind in the global vaccine scramble would have "huge" and "dangerous" consequences. 

He said Africa required 1.5 billion vaccine doses to reach 20 per cent of its 1.3 billion-strong population by the end of 2021, but costs, logistics and global power dynamics could make this impossible. He expects vaccinations will not begin until the second quarter of 2021. 

Speaking to The Telegraph, Dr Nkengasong said: "The consequences will be huge [in terms of] continuous deaths" if Africa fails to access enough vaccines. 

He added: "The disruption of trade and movement of people will lead to huge economic loss." 

Africa is now firmly in the grip of a second wave, with countries in North Africa driving rising infections as temperatures fall. South Africa and Kenya have also experienced a resurgence. But the World Health Organisation has warned that countries are ill-prepared for a massive roll-out of vaccines following a continent-wide survey that looked at key areas like vaccine regulations, logistics and community preparedness.

Earlier, speaking to reporters at a briefing on Thursday, Dr Nkengasong said: “I have seen how Africa is neglected when drugs are available." 

He added that it would be "extremely dangerous" for richer countries to vaccinate their populations and then impose travel restrictions on those without proof of vaccination.

Several vaccine trials have reported extremely promising data in recent weeks, but there are challenges that could cause a lag in distributing the vaccine in Africa, Dr Nkengasong said, including the lack of cold chain storage needed to preserve the vaccines. 

He said the CDC is in talks with countries including Russia and China for help to avoid being left behind.

Some African countries have already joined the World Health Organisation-led Covax facility to try and access vaccines. Co-led by WHO, Gavi, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), the scheme is part of a global collaboration aiming to ensure that there is equitable access to coronavirus vaccines globally. 

Many African countries qualify for the Covax Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which will provide financial support to lower-income nations. But South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, all upper-middle-income countries, have agreed to pay millions of dollars to secure their doses.

South Africa will procure doses for 10 per cent of its 58 million-strong population, while Namibia has paid for vaccines covering 20 per cent of its 2.5 million people. 

While demand for a vaccine outstrips supply, countries plan to vaccinate their priority populations - the most vulnerable and the most exposed - in order to end the acute phase of the pandemic as soon as possible. 

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