Africa mobilises to meet escalating Covid-19 crisis
Africa is in urgent need of Covid-19 vaccines as the third wave grows in several countries. Initiatives from the continent seek to complement insufficient donations from COVAX.
While the world was at first surprised by how little Covid-19 affected Africa, the third wave seems to strike harder. Eighteen African countries are now in resurgence, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) that reports an sharp increase of cases since the end of May. WHO’s director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, speaking at a virtual press conference on 15 July, said Africa has recorded a 43 percent rise in Covid-19 deaths in the past week, from 4 384 to 6 273. Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia accounted for 83 percent of the new fatalities.
About 75 percent of recent test samples on the continent are of the delta variant of the virus. According to WHO, evidence suggests that existing vaccines are effective against it. The bad news, however, is that less than 2 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated. Moreover, the Covid-19 delta wave also seems to be affecting younger people. As many African countries already face acute shortages of emergency beds and oxygen, the situation is alarming.
“Hospitals are at breaking point. Boosting oxygen production is a number one priority now, to give critically ill patients a fighting chance”, Moeti stated.
In March 2020, the scramble for protective equipment caused prices of surgical masks and gloves to rocket. Similarly, after vaccines had been developed, rich countries hoarded bigger stocks than they actually needed. This was one of the reasons that WHO and its partners set up the COVAX project to speed up the manufacture of vaccines and guarantee access for developing countries. However, even with available vaccines, the aim for COVAX was always just to provide 20 percent of the population in eligible countries with vaccine. It would never be sufficient for all Africa’s needs. There had to be an African solution, too.
Non-profit organisation Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP), which was set up by African businesspeople and is funded by the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), is an e-commerce platform that connects medical providers with suppliers. Only governments, national health systems and NGOs are allowed to buy from AMSP and intermediaries are cut out of the process.
AMSP´s goal is to secure supplies and stabilise prices of medical equipment. The platform pools orders and aggregates purchases so suppliers do not have to deal with many countries, thereby ensuring that African countries can compete with richer economies.
“Joint procurement is good because larger shipments reduce prices. However, joint procurement can be problematic if countries have different demands and at different times. Nevertheless, correct price information is important even if countries make orders on their own, they can then use the portal’s prices as benchmarks and negotiate themselves”, NAI development economist Jörgen Levin remarks.
The AMSP has now added vaccine accessories — freezers to store vaccines, and syringes and needles administer the doses — to its website. It is also supporting vaccine procurement for the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), which was created in January 2021 and is led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
AVATT has managed to secure contracts for 570 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Sputnik V. When those doses arrive, they will cover almost a third of Africa’s population aged over 15 years. However, vaccine production and shipments are lagging behind.
“AMSP and AVATT are both examples of African cooperation. They are regional solutions to problems too difficult and too costly for single countries to deal with”, NAI researcher Patience Mususa says.
In May, the US Administration declared it would support waiving intellectual property rights for development of Covid-19 vaccines. However, the pharmaceutical industry in the US as well as the European Union are opposed to it. Their argument is that intellectual property rights are how companies make a profit and thereby stimulate innovation.
“During the HIV crisis, the same argument made antiretroviral medicines too expensive for ordinary people to buy. A waiver on Covid vaccines could also mean a technology transfer to African countries, and possibilities of an Africa-produced vaccine”, Mususa notes.
According to her, the pandemic has clearly shown that industrialisation in Africa is fundamental. The continent needs to secure production of medicines and medical equipment. To attract private investors and big pharmaceutical companies, African states need to take the lead and back up investments.
“Governments need to figure out how to mobilise resources nationally and regionally. Industrialisation would also mean a serious expansion of skill levels. This requires on their part a significant public investment in research education”, Mususa concludes.
TEXT: Johan Sävström
COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) is a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines directed by Gavi (a public–private global health partnership), CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) and the WHO.
The Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP) is a not-for-profit initiative launched by the African Union as a practical response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It enables AU member states to purchase certified medical equipment. The online platform was developed under the leadership of Zimbabwean businessman Strive Masiyiwa on behalf of Africa CDC and in partnership with Afreximbank and United Nation´s Economic Commission for Africa.
African Export–Import Bank (Afreximbank) is a multilateral bank established in the 1990s by the Africa Development Bank to support continental trade and is based in Egypt.
Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a specialized technical institution of the African Union that strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions as well as partnerships to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks.