At first glance, the emergence of the Omicron variant is the unfortunate fulfillment of expert predictions that failure to prioritize vaccinations for African countries would allow the coronavirus to continue circulating and mutating there, putting at risk the world’s ability to move beyond the pandemic.
While Western countries kept most of the global vaccine supply for themselves, African countries were denied access to doses or could not afford them. About 10 percent of Africans have received a dose of the vaccine, compared to 64 percent in North America and 62 percent in Europe.
But the problem is changing. In recent weeks, vaccines have started pouring into Africa, and the new challenge is how to scale up vaccinations quickly, as South Africa is demonstrating.
“We have not completely overcome the problem of vaccine supply in low-income countries,” said Shabir Madhi, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “But where they are available, countries find it difficult to develop. “
Scientists in South Africa, which has the continent’s most sophisticated genome sequencing facilities, were the first to report the detection of the new variant, after it was found in four people in Botswana.
South Africa has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent: just under a quarter of the population has been fully vaccinated, and the government has said it has more than five months of doses in its stores. But they are not administered quickly enough.
Vaccinations in South Africa are working at about half the target rate, officials said last week. To avoid the expiration of vaccines, the government has even postponed some deliveries scheduled for the beginning of next year.
In a Sunday briefing to announce the country’s response to the new variant, President Cyril Ramaphosa said his cabinet was considering making vaccines mandatory for specific places and activities. Before applying the new rules, however, a task force will study “a fair and sustainable approach”.
In a country where vaccines are free, this was a more desirable approach than imposing additional lockdown restrictions, as he said new viral infections in general more than tripled in a week. Masks remain mandatory in public, and a curfew is in place from midnight to 4 a.m.
“We know enough about the variant to know what we need to do to reduce transmission and protect ourselves against serious illness and death,” Ramaphosa said. “The first and most powerful tool we have is vaccination. “
But the problem isn’t just the product of the misinformation-driven reluctance that has hampered vaccination efforts in the West. In fact, some studies suggest it’s a small part of the problem in South Africa.
Instead, the vaccination campaign was slowed down by a complex series of logistical, financial and even political issues. And Western actions are partly to blame.
Many African countries lack cold storage facilities or supply chains for a large-scale vaccination campaign. Dilapidated health systems mean a lack of clinics or trained personnel to administer vaccines.
As Western countries monopolize vaccine stocks for most of this year and doses from India halted as cases increased there, many African countries have relied on donations. But some of these vaccines are near their expiration dates, giving countries a narrow window to deliver them safely.
The coronavirus pandemic: what you need to know
And many Africans are limited by time and money. They may not have the bus ticket to go to a remote vaccination center – or be reluctant to queue for hours if there is a risk of missing work or losing a job.
Misinformation and cultural factors are also important. Africa has a long history of immunizing young children against diseases like polio, but a mass vaccination campaign among adults is “very, very unusual,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, Africa director of Africa, told reporters. the World Health Organization.
Even nurses and doctors tend to believe false stories of dangerous side effects: Recent studies in Ghana and Ethiopia have found that less than 50 percent of health workers intend to be vaccinated, a said Dr Moeti.
In South Africa, race is a factor: Researchers at the University of Johannesburg found that whites were more reluctant to be vaccinated than blacks, but were more likely to have been vaccinated because they had access to better health care.
The race to vaccinate Africans is advancing. In the past eight weeks, 30 African countries have administered 80 percent of the doses received, according to the World Health Organization. Only Djibouti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo administered less than 20 percent of the doses received.
Still, there is a long way to go. So far, rich countries have delivered just 14% of the 1.7 billion doses promised to low- and middle-income countries by next September, according to data compiled by Our World in Data, a project of the United Nations. ‘University of Oxford.
And no matter how quickly those doses arrive, experts say African countries need support to help them get them into people’s arms.
In Kenya this month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken outlined measures to help Kenyans overcome these ‘last mile’ hurdles through the Global Covid Corps, a new public-private partnership to overcome hurdles logistics and delivery. As fear of the new variant spreads, the sense of urgency around such programs is likely to grow.