Oxford vaccine pioneer proud as first Covax jabs administered and campaign goes global

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Paul Nuki
·8 min read
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Secrétaire général de la présidence, Patrick Achi, receives the first Covax jab at the Parc des Sports in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire - Paul Nuki
Secrétaire général de la présidence, Patrick Achi, receives the first Covax jab at the Parc des Sports in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire - Paul Nuki

The first Covax vaccines were administered to government ministers and essential workers in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa this morning, formally signalling the long awaited start of the global vaccine programme against Covid-19.

The internationally funded and United Nations-led roll out – working to the axiom “it’s not over anywhere until it's over everywhere” – aims to reach 20 per cent of people in 92 low and middle-income nations with more than two billion doses of vaccine by end of the year.

As the first 0.5 millilitre shot of the Oxford AstraZeneca jab went into the arm of Secrétaire général de la présidence, Patrick Achi, at the Parc des Sports in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, he urged all the country’s 200,000 essential workers to follow his lead.

“Vaccination gives us hope to return to normal. To hug our friends, to go back to work, to live like we once did. To enjoy the human warmth we all know and miss,” he said.

“We hope that today you all, and especially our fearless military, follow us in getting vaccinated with smiling faces.”

Even before Mr Achi had stopped speaking at the packed event, complete with brass band, a long queue of health workers, teachers, police, soldiers and essential agricultural workers had formed to receive their jabs.

The Telegraph sent live images of the event to Professor Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford University scientist who developed the vaccine, as it was happening. She was “proud the vaccine was being used to protect people through Covax” and urged other manufacturers to “ join the endeavour”.

“At Oxford we always planned to produce a vaccine for the world, and it is amazing to see this vision being realised now. We encourage the other manufacturers to provide doses to Covax also, to increase the number of immunisations that can be given.”

It's an important message. People close to Covax say Moderna and Pfizer continue to play “hard ball” over pricing and terms, limiting the speed of the rollout

Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire have been racing to deliver the first Covax shots ever since supplies were flown into the region last week from the Serum Institute of India.

A woman puts Covax stickers as workers unload a shipment of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from a plane at Felix Houphouet Boigny airport of Abidjan - AFP
A woman puts Covax stickers as workers unload a shipment of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from a plane at Felix Houphouet Boigny airport of Abidjan - AFP

Ghana received the first consignment last Wednesday and was expected to hold off using it until tomorrow to allow its northern neighbour to claim the first inoculation today. But local rivalry proved too much and both countries started administering the British-Swedish vaccine in the early morning.

Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, was the first to social media, announcing on Instagram that he had personally been vaccinated at a military hospital at 9am under the hashtags #TheVaccineIsSafe #IWillTakeTheVaccine.

Dr Jean Marie V Yameogo, the WHO country representative in Côte d’Ivoire, went one better saying: “Côte d’Ivoire will be the first country to vaccinate the public with vaccines delivered by Covax.”

With temperatures in Abidjan high enough to stop video cameras working after just a few minutes of operation, it was no surprise that the Oxford AstraZeneca jab was the first to be used by Covax.

It can be stored in an ordinary fridge and was designed from the outset with global distribution in mind, its not-for-profit pricing as well as its versatility making it ideal for mass distribution in low- and middle-income countries.

Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is spearheading the Covax campaign together with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) and Unicef, hailed the administration of the first Covax jab.

“Today's launches in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana represent major milestones in what will be the biggest and most rapid vaccination campaign in history. There is more to do, but today Covax can celebrate real progress,” he said.

Dr Berkley added added that the Covax vaccine was now scheduled to arrive in more than 10 other African countries this week including Angola, Nigeria, DRC, Kenya and Senegal.

Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of Cepi, said the west African jabs marked a “seminal moment for the pandemic and, frankly, for history” and would hopefully mark the “source of a great stream of vaccine that will begin to flow over the coming year around the world”.

Dr Hatchett was working for the White House during the 2008/9 H1N1 swine flu pandemic when global vaccine supplies were monopolised by a handful of wealthy nations.

The experience scarred him and he has been one of the principal architects of Covax facility which, while largely funded by richer nations including the UK, essentially operates as a country in its own right, negotiating its own vaccine supply deals in advance.

It helps that Cepi seed-funded several of the new platforms that the Covid vaccines are now using, including the Oxford AstraZenica and Pfizer BioNTech jabs.

“Covax supply is a combination of homegrown supply and also purchases on the open market,” said Dr Hatchett. “Part of the narrative spinning around right now is, you know, ‘look at all these bilateral deals - there are no doses left’.

“But that's not the case… Covax has its own contracts”.

Côte d'Ivoire, like many African countries, has so far escaped the worst of the pandemic, recording just 32,754 cases and 192 deaths from a population of 26 million over the last year.

Nevertheless the country locked down hard last Spring to avoid the first wave of the virus and the financial impact on small business owners, street traders and tourism has been severe.

In Abidjan, a sophisticated city dubbed the “Paris of West Africa”, life has all but returned to normal for its four to five million inhabitants, although temperature checks, face masks and hand sanitation remain mandatory and well observed for most indoor venues.

There was some unease among Covax representatives in the run up to today’s event when it became apparent that ministers rather than health workers would be vaccinated first. But vaccine hesitancy among parts of the population is high and local officials appear to have judged it best for politicians to be seen to lead by example.

“There is a lot of fake news," a local Unicef representative told the Telegraph. “People say Covid is a white person's disease and there have been church groups and others telling people that the vaccines will kill you or that they are another trick by western countries to control us.”

The myths, say locals, are fed by poor literacy levels, the history of slavery and colonialism in the region and the fact that the Ivorians most visibly hit by Covid come from its tight-knit ruling class – a privileged group that spend a lot of time in Europe.

On the other hand, Côte d'Ivoire, like most African countries, is no stranger to infectious disease or the life-saving power of vaccination.

Cholera, measles, yellow fever, tuberculosis and polio have all been driven low or eradicated through inoculation in recent years and vaccines are being marshalled as crucial line of defence against Ebola which has broken out again in neighboring Guinea.

“In the beginning the population was hesitant but we think, we hope, they are coming around,” said Joseph Benie Bi Vroh, director of the National Institute for Public Hygiene who, via a CCTV console in his first floor office, can zoom in on the normally crowded vaccination centre below.

“At the start there was a lot of fake news and the disease was not visible like malaria, for example, so people were sceptical. But now we have had some famous cases and we have been working hard with an information campaign to convince people. I’m optimistic with the right leadership and examples people will come to be vaccinated.”

Cathy Bassa, chargée d’affaires at the British Embassy in Abidjan, highlighted the UK role in Covax – it was one of the first contributors and is the third largest funder after the US and Germany.

“What has started today here in Côte d’Ivoire is the beginning of a massive, concerted effort supported by UK aid to get more than a billion vaccines to low- and lower-middle income countries over the course of this year”, said Ms Bassa.

“The UK has played a vital role in its support to Covax to make this all happen today. As an early funder to the mechanism, the UK provided more than half a billion pounds to make global access to vaccines a reality. This gave Covax the purchase power it needed to allow it early access to internationally approved vaccines.

“I can quite honestly say that this work to support Covax, achieve global access to vaccines and bring our partners behind us is Global Britain at its very best.”

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