Plea to share spare coronavirus vaccines in order to avert ‘moral catastrophe’

A health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine
A health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine (AP)
8:12am, Wed 09 Jun 2021
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Leaders of wealthy nations meeting this week at the G7 summit in the UK have been urged to share spare coronavirus vaccines in order to avert a “moral catastrophe”.

The call came from Africa CDC director Dr John Nkengasong amid figures showing the continent is at the back of the pack in the global race to vaccinate people against Covid-19.

In fact, it has barely moved out of the starting blocks.

In South Africa, which has the continent’s most robust economy and its biggest coronavirus caseload, just 0.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to a worldwide tracker kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Global Covid-19 cases and deaths (PA Graphics)

And hundreds of thousands of the country’s health workers, many of whom come face-to-face with the virus every day, are still waiting for their shots.

In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country with more than 200 million people, only 0.1% are fully protected. Kenya, with 50 million people, is even lower. Uganda has recalled doses from rural areas because it does not have nearly enough to fight outbreaks in big cities.

Chad did not administer its first vaccine shots until the weekend. And there are at least five other countries in Africa where not one dose has been put into an arm, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the continent of 1.3 billion people is facing a severe shortage of vaccines at the same time as a new wave of infections is rising across Africa.

Vaccine shipments into Africa have ground to a “near halt”, the WHO said last week.

“It is extremely concerning and at times frustrating,” said Dr Nkengasong, a Cameroonian virologist who is trying to ensure some of the world’s poorest nations get a fair share of vaccines in a marketplace where they cannot possibly compete.

People are dying. Time is against us. This is insane

The United States and Britain, in contrast, have fully vaccinated more than 40% of their populations, with higher rates for adults and high-risk people.

Countries in Europe are near or past 20% coverage, and their citizens are starting to think about where their vaccine certificates might take them on their summer holidays.

The US, France and Germany are even offering shots to youngsters, who are at a very low risk of serious illness from Covid-19.

Poorer countries had warned as far back as last year of this impending vaccine inequality, fearful that rich nations would hoard doses.

Dr Nkengasong said: “I’d like to believe that the G7 countries, most of them having kept excess doses of vaccines, want to be on the right side of history. Distribute those vaccines. We need to actually see these vaccines, not just… promises and goodwill.”

Others are not so patient, nor so diplomatic.

“People are dying. Time is against us. This is insane,” South African human rights lawyer Fatima Hasan, an activist for equal access to healthcare, wrote in a series of text messages.

The Biden administration made its first major move to ease the crisis last week, announcing it would share an initial batch of 25 million spare doses with desperate countries in South and Central America, Asia and Africa.

Dr Nkengasong and his team were in contact with White House officials a day later, he said, with a list of countries where the five million doses earmarked for Africa could go to immediately.

Still, the US offer is only a “trickle” of what is needed, Ms Hasan wrote.

Africa alone is facing a shortfall of around 700 million doses, even after taking into account those secured through the WHO’s vaccine programme for poorer countries, Covax, and a deal with Johnson & Johnson, which comes through in August.

Uganda just released a batch of 3,000 vaccine doses in the capital, Kampala – a minuscule amount for a city of two million – to keep its programme barely alive.

There and elsewhere, the fear is that the luck that somehow enabled parts of Africa to escape the worst of previous waves of Covid-19 infections and deaths might not hold this time.

“The first Covid was a joke, but this one is for real. It kills,” said Danstan Nsamba, a taxi driver in Uganda who has lost numerous people he knew to the virus.

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