The co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, has reiterated the need for Nigeria to prioritise the development of its health sector rather than focusing on the COVID-19 vaccines.
Speaking during an interview session with journalists on Tuesday, Mr Gates said the country should divert resources budgeted for approved COVID-19 vaccines into the development of the country’s weak health care system.
“There is no doubt that the impact of putting money into the health system particularly the primary healthcare system will be very high in terms of saving children’s lives.
“Nigeria should not divert the very limited money that it has for health into trying to pay a high price for COVID-19 vaccines,” Mr Gates said.
His statement was a response to a question on Nigeria’s plan to invest about N400 billion to vaccinate 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population at $8 per vaccine.
Nigeria’s health minister, Osagie Ehanire, in December 2020, told the senate that N156 billion will be needed in 2021 while N200 billion will be used for vaccination in 2022, according to a report by The Cable.
But Mr Gates said Nigeria is already a beneficiary of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health partnership to increase access to immunisation in poor countries.
“The key is that Nigeria is still eligible, and so, for a lot of those vaccines, they will come through the GAVI facility that we have raised money for, ” Mr Gates said.
Most African countries, including Nigeria, are banking on benefitting from the COVAX facility, an initiative run by the vaccine alliance, GAVI, to ensure equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) backed programme, was set-up to divide a billion doses across 92 low and middle-income countries.
The facility promised access to vaccines for up to 20 per cent of participating countries’ population with an initial supply beginning in the first quarter of the year to immunize 3 per cent of their population.
Through this initiative, the Nigerian government had announced that at least 100,000 doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines will arrive the country by February.
It is also expecting ‘free’ 42 million doses of other approved vaccines in the second phase through the COVAX facility.
These vaccines will, however, cover only about 20 per cent of Nigeria’s over 200 million estimated population.
But whether the COVAX facility is able to deliver vaccines as promised or not, African countries must sort other alternatives to vaccinate at least 50 per cent of their population to reach herd immunity.
Last week, Mr Ehanire said efforts are ongoing to secure 10 million doses of the viral vector vaccines to cover an additional 50 per cent of the country’s population.
Underfunded health sector
Mr Gates said the Nigeria health sector is generally underfunded.
He noted that investing the proposed COVID-19 vaccines funds into other health-related areas would assist to deepen vaccine coverage and save more lives.
He said millions of lives can be saved if Nigeria’s primary health care system operated at a level that some other countries at the same wealth operates.
“I’m an advocate for the government to have more resources and prioritise health. Obviously I’m not a voter in Nigeria, so Nigeria can decide that independently.
“So my advice is that the primary health care system is what is super important and that with those finite resources, you have to prioritise expenditure.
“And in that case, waiting for the GAVI vaccines would be the best thing and to put into other areas so that vaccine coverage rates, that are as low as 20 per cent in some areas, get up to 80/90 per cent to save children’s lives,” he said.
Mr Gates appealed to every government to begin preparations for the next pandemic as the COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last the world would experience.
He called for the dedication of more resources into public health.
“We have to make sure that we take the lessons from this pandemic, and make sure we are ready for the next one to come.
“Africa learned a lot in its fight against Ebola and polio. A lot of resources and infrastructure that was developed for those have been helpful in COVID-19.
“And it just points out that we need to invest in more of those, even for the times when there’s not a pandemic.”
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