Africa is becoming frightened as India fights the coronavirus, for fear of the long-term lack of vaccines manufactured in India that it needs to help protect its people.
Often referred to as the “pharmacy of the world,” India is one of the largest providers of the AstraZeneca vaccine within the COVAX program to help vaccinate the poorest countries.
But India has been marked by an explosive growth of infections, accelerated, scientists say, by a new variant.
The country has registered 22 million cases out of a population of 1.3 billion people and a death toll of nearly a quarter of a million.
After sending more than 60 million doses abroad, India announced in late March that it was delaying supplies to other countries as it works to meet its own needs.
African Union (AU) health ministers held emergency talks online on Saturday to discuss the vaccine gap.
“The vaccine situation is now extremely complex due to the situation in India,” said Cameroonian virologist John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the dog of health surveillance of the UA.
“We expect a continuous supply of vaccines through COVAX from India, but we are watching with total horror and disbelief what is happening in India and we do not expect vaccines to be shipped out of India soon. ”
Of all continents, Africa has been relatively spared the worst of the pandemic to date, with just over 124,000 deaths officially recorded for 4.6 million cases.
On the other hand, Africa has overcrowded cities, with slums that are the breeding ground for the virus and a fragile health infrastructure, risk factors that also stand out prominently in India’s experience.
The continent has administered 19.6 million doses, or just 2 percent of the world total. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of doses have been administered in richer countries.
Lacking the means to manufacture their own vaccine in bulk, so far African countries have had to resort to the open market or the COVAX plan.
The AU African Vaccine Acquisition Task Force (AVATT) expects to acquire vaccines through its own program in late July or early August, and Nkengasong said that while he hoped to advance that date, he would not he could make no guarantee.
Nkengasong said he did not expect the vaccine market to reopen until the third quarter and urged African leaders to adjust their strategy accordingly.
The variant of the virus that has wreaked havoc in India has already been detected in several African countries, most notably Kenya, South Africa and Uganda.
Nkengasong pushed for a three-axis strategy: intensify testing; improve prevention through awareness programs; and increase the supply of vaccines and oxygen.
The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged African countries to remain vigilant until the vaccine crisis is resolved.
“What is happening now in many other parts of the world can happen in our Africa if we lower our guard,” he said at the AU meeting.
“In many countries, the emergence of rapidly spreading variants, combined with premature relief from social and public health measures and the inequitable distribution of vaccines has tragic consequences.”
The AU ministerial meeting urged strict adherence to social distancing guidelines on a continent where there is some resistance to vaccines.
The Democratic Republic of Congo announced in late April that it had “redistributed” 1.3 million AstraZeneca “surplus” vaccines to five neighboring countries.
The health ministry admitted that some sections of the population had simply refused to receive the puncture.
In some rich countries, the problem of insufficient supply of vaccines is beginning to shift to a surplus.
“The unequal distribution of vaccines is not just a moral outrage. It is also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating, ”said Tedros.