Race for Covid-19 vaccine: Does Africa have skin in the game?

As Covid-19 rips through the United States of America, where new case numbers and death toll have been at 150 thousand and 1,500 a day respectively since Monday, the scale of the tragedy has certainly prompted almost an unprecedented scramble to develop a vaccine. 

The pandemic has been so politicised in America that politicians and their appointee scientists have chosen bravado over science, suggesting that they can beat this disease through herd immunity, a total misuse of that concept.

Luckily, while there has been no political leadership to rally the American people behind a national plan of action, there has been an army of conscientious scientists who have tried their best to battle the disease from their labs and medical personnel standing on the frontlines against the disease in their intensive care units and hospital wards with bravery, humility and humanity.  

Most of these scientists have sustained the zeal to stick to the facts and deserve an applause for the current momentum on the vaccine front.

As the world continues to be hammered by this disease with ferocity unseen since the 1918 Spanish flu, the global biopharmaceutical industry has worked non-stop since January to develop safe and effective vaccines against Covid. These efforts now appear to be paying off, at least for the countries in the global north for the immediate future, and perhaps later for the rest of the world. 

There are now several vaccines that have shown immense promise, some exhibiting up to 95pc efficacy in preventing Covid-19 infections. The most prominent of these are from the global giant Pfizer in collaboration with a German research firm, BioNTech, from a Boston-based Moderna and from AstraZeneca in collaboration with the University of Oxford.

With the announcement on Wednesday that the United Kingdom’s Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has approved the Pfizer vaccine and plans to deploy it within the UK in the next week or so, the world has edged closer to a relief. US vaccine developers also announced on Monday that they, too, have filed for approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, the US regulator. 

With these, victory against this most monstrous of viruses seems imminent. Or is it? 
Vaccines are wonderful gifts of science to humanity and there is no question the news is being greeted with euphoria around the world. But it appears that many corners of the world will not be touched by the good news just yet.

Access race

Africa, particularly, will have challenges ahead regarding access to vaccines in the near future, and this will give many Africans material for debate, just as the puzzle of the continent’s low case numbers has triggered all manner of speculation. 

First of all, there is still a wait-and-see attitude toward the Pfizer vaccine, even within North America and Europe. The European Union will not take the UK approval of the Pfizer vaccine as a done deal for its member states but will first subject it to its own verification and approval mechanism, which is quite intriguing, given that the vaccine was developed in concert with a German company, was manufactured in Belgium and yet, Europe wants its own corroboration of the vaccine. 

Secondly, it’s quite costly, $20 a jab for a two shots regimen. On both accounts, the uncertainty about safety and efficacy and the cost, Africans will most likely want to wait and see. After all, the trials in the West selected participants that covered all population segments by age, medical conditions, social characteristics and race, and there is no telling whether vaccines developed without participation of African volunteers could be administered to Africans without further tests that consider the unique population characteristics in Africa.

Logistics

Thirdly, there is the issue of the logistics to move and store the vaccines. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine requires storage conditions of minus 70 degrees centigrade temperature, something one can hardly imagine possible in many African countries where electricity, transport infrastructure and security are such serious challenges as to make it impossible to keep the vaccine safe and potent.

Fourthly, while there has been negotiation involving World Health Organisation (WHO), the Africa Centre for Disease Control and the vaccine alliance (GAVI) to find ways to get the vaccines to the developing world through something called COVAX Facility, Europe and North America will first prioritise vaccination of their most at-risk populations, and Africa might not get a chance until mid 2021. Alternatively, the pharmaceutical companies might be persuaded to grant permission to developing world’s local manufacturers in India, South Africa or Egypt, which would reduce the cost, assuming safety and efficacy matters can be sorted out by these countries.

Fifth, perhaps the most important, is the nature of the coronavirus itself, which has continued to elude a good handle on it, even as more and more is understood about it. For example, as some countries have a disaster on their hands, others seem to have been relatively spared, in some cases due to public health actions and other times for reasons that are yet to be discovered. 

In Africa, where the infection rates have remained quite low and declining, where most people who got infected remained asymptomatic and those with symptoms not developing severe clinical conditions, the situation has evolved in surprising ways. 

Africa has now gone from the doomsday predictions when the virus first landed there in March, that, due to poverty of the people and the poor health services in most countries, the streets would be littered with dead bodies, as Melinda Gates and other public health experts once declared, to a situation where Africans are wondering if the global race to develop a vaccine is even a priority for Africa at the moment. 

Most Africans have presumably moved on with their lives, past the fears that the coronavirus had imposed on them, not in the spirit of bluster exhibited by the American politicians, but because people were not seeing the feared community spread of Covid, and because the measures that governments had imposed were just unworkable. 
And, with this, the vaccine will come to Africa when it does, but I suspect ordinary Africans are not losing sleep over the vaccine. What African scientists should be doing now is to find out what is making Covid less deadly in Africa.

Impact

This is not to say Covid-19 did not affect Africa. Far from it. The maximum lockdowns, night curfews and mobility restrictions imposed across the continent have all visited a disastrous situation on most African economies and livelihoods. Covid has come to Africa in ways that will be deadly to Africans for years to come, not by invading lungs, but by creating conditions that will allow poverty to invade homes and hunger to invade human bodies. 

Not only has it ruined national economies, impeding the countries’ ability to deliver goods and services, it has also given governments perfect alibis for failure to take responsibility for public welfare and misuse of public resources. 

It has also enabled unscrupulous government officials and their cronies in the markets to steal funds meant to fight Covid. Kenya’s “Covid Billionaires” is a case in point.

Revealed social ills 

Covid-19 has revealed a lot of social ills. It is being utilised by governments to suppress descent and take away past democratic and civic gains. For example, the government of Uganda has arrested opposition leader Bobi Wine, disrupted his election campaigns, all on accusations that he has violated Covid-19 moratorium on crowds, but it’s known that he is being harassed on political grounds. 

It is also now convenient for the government of South Sudan to blame Covid-19 for the country’s bankruptcy, even as every citizen knows this is not entirely true, that the country’s wealth had started migrating into individual bank accounts in Eastern Africa and beyond long before Wuhan coughed. 

This is East Africa’s pivotal moment for democratic forces to push for a change agenda on all the glaring inequities and institutional frailties that Covid-19 has unmasked. Perhaps, like in Europe and America, African scientists will labour on with research even as political leaders take advantage of health emergencies to score for themselves.

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