Bridging the vaccine gap threatening Africa

WRITTEN BY

Barbara Nel, Country President, African Cluster

This article was originally published on Devex, (www.devex.com)


The response to the pandemic has shown the speed of mobilization and vaccine science at its best.

Faced with an unprecedented challenge, governments, international organizations, the health care industry and global health experts have come together on a scale never seen before. The result has been the development of multiple vaccines in record time and more than three billion doses administered worldwide.

It’s a remarkable achievement, which shows what we are capable of when we act together and in the spirit of cooperation and solidarity.

But the coronavirus has also laid bare entrenched inequities that continue to perpetuate poor health and wellbeing in already vulnerable communities. Of those billion-plus vaccines, fewer than 2% have been dispensed in Africa.

It is one of the key reasons the continent now finds itself gripped by a deadly third wave, which could claim more lives than the first two combined.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in its report entitled Africa’s Perfect Storm, set out the challenge and the threat if we do not take action: “The international community, both vaccine manufacturers and governments, need to increase support to African countries both in terms of vaccine supply and rollout by recognising that the battle against COVID-19 requires a global effort and that the increasing vaccine inequality we are witnessing today is a danger not only to Africa but for the global community.”


Image credit: Democratic Republic of Congo – Vaccine storage warehouse, Kinkole commune, Kinshasa, DRC. Credit: UNICEF / Ray


Vaccines on the ground

There is no lack of will from the global community. Billions of dollars have been pledged to the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment, a global initiative to ensure vaccine supply reaches low- and middle-income countries. In addition, more and more countries are starting to donate from their own supply and direct them to where they are most needed.

For Africa, this is translating into vaccines on the ground and protecting the lives of millions of people. It is a remarkable display of global collaboration, which we in Africa are truly grateful for.

But a looming challenge has been producing enough vaccines to meet the global demand. COVAX is expecting a strong increase in vaccine availability later this year as supplies from new manufacturers  become available, but we are still falling short in our effort to bridge the vaccine equity gap.

Given the scale and urgency of the challenge, we must go further. The World Health Organization has called for an “all-out, no regrets, accelerated building up of new vaccine manufacturing hubs.” WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has highlighted that for this to happen quicker, pharmaceutical companies must share their licenses, know-how and technology.

We agree with WHO that vaccine licensing is key to unlocking the supply challenge. While some have argued for a blanket waiver of intellectual-property rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, this is not a quick fix to immediately increase the supply of vaccines. In fact, this approach would take many more months to yield any extra doses, which is far too late for millions of people.

The ‘third way’

Instead, we are committed to a different approach, which the World Trade Organization’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has called the “third-way.”

For us, this  involves a combination of not-for-profit pricing and technology transfers to boost production. Through this approach, already we have created more than a dozen new regional supply chains around the world to respond to community needs closer to where they are.

This has allowed us to supply vaccines all over the world, contributing more than half a billion  doses to the global fight against COVID-19. We were also the first vaccine manufacturer to commit to COVAX, supplying more than 90% of the vaccine to more than 127 participating countries, including 38 African countries at the end of June. Countries such as Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia have all benefitted from this approach.

Developing, producing and supplying a vaccine for the world is an extraordinarily complicated challenge and we have all learned many lessons on the way.

These are lessons that should not merely be carried into future pandemic preparedness — they must be addressed right now. Entire communities and economies are depending on it.

As things stand, just over 1% of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated. We still have a long way to go but we believe our approach can bring much-needed relief to the world’s most vulnerable communities. 

This will only be possible if we work together, apply our lessons learned and do what is necessary to vaccinate the whole world, not just portions of it.