Africa, the continent that is not getting vaccinated

Despite the WHO's Covax programme, only 1.31% of the world's doses have gone to its population

3 min
Ground handlers at Accra airport in Ghana unload the first doses of Oxford vaccine arriving in Africa on Wednesday

LondonA drop of water in the middle of an absolute desert. This is the effect that the first 600,000 vaccines from the Covax humanitarian programme, sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), have, which arrived Wednesday morning at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The West African republic of 31 million people has become the first country on the continent to receive doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, produced under license from the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company's Serum Institute of India.

These 600,000 doses will be enough to immunize the approximately 300,000 frontline health workers in the country, which is currently experiencing a second wave of the pandemic. So far Ghana has recorded just over 81,000 infections and 584 deaths.

When Ghana begins the very partial immunization campaign in the next two or three days, it will be the eleventh country out of 54 on the continent to have been able to start it. So far, however, the number of people in Africa who have received some of the available vaccines, whether Western, Russian or the various Chinese ones approved by Beijing, is absolutely testimonial.

Calculations made by this same newspaper based on data available from the WHO REGIONAL OFFICE of Johns Hopkins University and the website Our World in Data from Oxford University, show that of the 216.1 million doses that have already been administered in the world, only 2.85 million have been administered to African citizens. In percentage terms, this represents only 1.31% of the vaccines used. Africa is home to 17.3% of the global population, approximately 1.216 billion people.

"It is deeply unfair that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while the groups at lower risk in rich countries are protected", said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, praising the effort and commitment made by Covax.

More than half of the 216.1 million doses reported globally were administered in just three countries - the United States (64.4 million), China (40.5 million), and the United Kingdom (18.2 million) - and more than 80% were for ten countries, the WHO said this week. The secretary general, Tedros Adhanom, criticized on Monday Western governments that continued to seal bilateral purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies, since they have a negative impact on the supplies committed to Covax.

In this regard, in addition to South Africa and India's complaint to the World Trade Organization for the release of patents for the billions of doses that are needed, this Wednesday the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the President of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, have made the same appeal. It is symptomatic that these four countries are the ones to do so. All four have facilities and expertise in vaccine production, but are bound together by trade agreements.

Last week, at the virtual G-7 meeting chaired by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the world's seven richest countries pledged to share surplus vaccines, without specifying how, and promised to increase the financial contribution to the Covax fund. But in no way did they address the release of patents.

Morocco, the most advanced country in Africa

The difference in the distribution of vaccines at the global level is also reflected at the continental level in Africa. Of the 2.85 million doses used, 93% (2.67 million) have been used in Morocco alone, which has benefited from the purchase made from AstraZeneca and the Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm.

Funded mainly by Western governments, including the United States, and various charitable foundations, the Covax programme aims to deliver around 2 billion doses to developing countries this year, most of them free of charge. The sponsors, led by WHO, believe that this would be enough to inoculate about 20% of the population of the world's 92 poorest economies and end what they call the acute phase of the pandemic. By the end of June, Covax expects to be able to distribute 330 million doses globally.

The number of people who can be immunized will depend on the vaccine that is put into circulation and on unforeseen problems, such as the one that has occurred in South Africa, the country most affected by the pandemic on the continent (1.5 million infections and 49,400 deaths). In this regard, the first to be administered are the single-dose Johnson & Johnson/Jansen vaccine.

Outside the Covax programme, South Africa received 80,000 on 17 February and expects to receive 20 million from Pfizer/BioNTech from the end of March and throughout the year. The million it had previously received from AstraZeneca in early February, with which it was to start immunising health workers, has been scrapped and offered to other African Union countries after doubts were raised about the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 variant that has emerged in the country.

The WHO regional department also announced this morning that "the delivery [for Ghana] is the first wave of arrivals that will continue in the coming days". It did not specify a list. However, if the official level of infections is taken into account, the next ones would have to go, in addition to the aforementioned case of South Africa, to Algeria, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and Tunisia, which are the most affected states, according to the list which was also made public on Wednesday.