Strive Massiiva also took aim at a global effort to distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, accusing COVAX of withholding critical information that major donors had not met funding pledges. Which donors did he not name?
“The situation may have been very different, we knew back in December that ‘Listen, this help isn’t coming, do it for yourself,'” Masieva told reporters, “many countries were just sitting there saying, ‘Vaccines are coming. ‘ … as Africans we are disappointed.”
He insisted that Africa had bought 400 million vaccine doses and could buy more, but he challenged the donors: “Pay your money… Will measure vaccines.”
The African continent of 1.3 billion people is now vulnerable to a third surge of infections, which is “extremely aggressive”, John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters. Health officials have described overcrowded COVID-19 wards, dangerous oxygen shortages and the growing spread of the virus in extremely vulnerable and unaffected rural areas.
Masiwa said COVAX had promised to deliver 700 million vaccine doses to Africa by December. But in the middle of the year, Africa has received just 65 million doses in total. Less than 50 million doses have arrived through COVAX.
“We are far from our target,” Nkengasong said. “We don’t want to be seen as the continent of COVID… (in Europe) stadiums are full of shouts and hugs from youngsters. We can’t do that in Africa.”
However, he and Masieva announced that the first batches of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer would begin arriving next week with US support. It was unclear how many doses would be in those first shipments. Meanwhile, more African-bought supplements will arrive in August, Masiwa said.
Africa CDC director said the African continent has 5.5 million confirmed COVID-19 infections and has seen a “remarkable” 23% increase in deaths over the past week.
He said the continent needs 1.6 billion doses in the double-dose regime, or 800 million for the single-dose regime, to meet the goal of immunizing 60% of the population.
Masiyeva provided a clear account of where global efforts to vaccinate the world against COVID-19 had failed. “By December it had become very clear that the expectation that we all as a global community would buy vaccines together through COVAX was not being followed especially by the rich and powerful countries,” he said.
He added that COVAX aims to provide 20% of Africa’s vaccine needs, while African nations are stepping in for the rest. But “no matter how much money your country has, they can’t buy vaccines… I’ve never seen presidents calling out CEOs while working so hard.”
The African continent has relied on vaccine manufacturing capabilities elsewhere in the world, but the COVID-19 vaccine crisis has jolted African leaders to chase down their production power.
Step by step, Masiwa lays out the challenges: Vaccine suppliers are required to purchase upfront, and the World Bank can only lend to countries once the vaccine is available. African countries scrambled through the Africa Export-Import Bank, owned by member states, to come up with about $2 billion. African countries created a purchasing platform to improve their purchasing power.
But vaccines have been difficult to find because countries with manufacturing capacity have previously imposed controls on export sales in the interest of immunizing their own citizens. “It was what we were talking about from the East, from the West, whatever,” Masiwa said. “It has created a huge crisis.”
“So how do we get into a situation where they give money to COVAX, who go to India to buy vaccines, and then they tell us those vaccines are not legal?” Masieva said. “It’s self-evident where the problem lies.”
Some countries engage in so-called vaccine diplomacy and those bilateral donations are welcome, he said, but they are not enough to “move the needle”.