Haphazard COVID-19 vaccine donations useless for Africa, WHO flags

Countries should be informed 4 weeks in advance, shots should have at least 10-month shelf-life

By Taran Deol
Published: Tuesday 30 November 2021

A majority doses of the vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) sent to Africa by other nations were “ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf-lives”, noted the World Health Organization (WHO). This has hindered immunisation coverage in many of the African countries. 

More than 90 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been delivered to Africa either via the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) or COVAX, a global initiative to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. Millions more were given through bilateral agreements. 

But many were sent on short notice or not long before their expiry dates, the United Nations health agency noted. 

“This has made it extremely challenging for countries to plan vaccination campaigns and increase absorptive capacity,” WHO said in a joint statement dated November 29, 2021 with the Africa Union, UNICEF and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. 

This trend must change “to achieve higher coverage rates across the continent, and for donations to be a sustainable source of supply that can complement supply from AVAT and COVAX purchase agreements”, it added. 

The statement listed standards African countries must adhere to from January 1, 2022 in order to  meet the global goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of their individual population. 

These include countries being informed at least four weeks in advance to the date of receiving the doses, the vaccines must have a shelf-life of at least 10 weeks when they arrive in the recipient country, additional costs — such as for syringes, diluent and cargo — must be covered so as to avoid delay. 

Moreover, donor countries are encouraged to “release donated doses in large volumes and in a predictable manner”, doses should not be earmarked to ensure an equitable distribution and there must be a quick response time from donor countries regarding essential information about the vaccine.

WHO said: 

Having to plan at short notice and ensure uptake of doses with short shelf-life exponentially magnifies the logistical burden on health systems that are already stretched. Furthermore, ad hoc supply of this kind utilises capacity – human resources, infrastructure, cold chain – that could be directed towards long-term successful and sustainable rollout.

The health agency declared the new Sars-CoV-2 variant Omicron a ‘variant of concern’ and termed the overall global risk from it “very high”. While little is known about how infectious the new variant is, whether it evades vaccine immunity or causes severe infection, rapid vaccination remains key in curbing its spread, WHO added.

Only 7 per cent of Africa’s 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated to date, according to Our World in Data. 

Less than 10 per cent African countries will meet the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40 per cent of their population, WHO had noted a month ago. Seychelles, Mauritius and Morocco have already met the target, while Tunisia and Cabo Verde are on their way to do so. 

Several experts have argued the emergence of Omicron is a result of vaccine inequity.

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