With 600 million doses of vaccines already in the kitty and another 270 million in the pot for Africa’s 1.3 billion people, Africa’s Anti-Disease Czar, John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), is saying that the region is better prepared to tackle the virus than a year ago when the pandemic hit Africa.
“The continent is better prepared today than it was one year ago. One year ago we knew little about this virus, one year ago we didn’t have the PPEs, one year ago we didn’t have a simple mask even if you had the money,” an optimistic Nkengasong told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview, stressing the need for the region to keep its eyes on the ball because, as he puts it, vaccines, even if they are not going to be the magic bullet, will be the game-changer in Africa’s quest to defeat the pandemic and protect its citizens from tragic outcomes.
Nkengasong who is one of the seven Special Envoys to the WHO on COVID-19 Preparedness and Response, advises that while the continent awaits the arrival of vaccines, it must consolidate efforts in place to contain the spread of the virus.
“…as the pandemic rages, we should be looking at care facilities like oxygen, make sure our hospitals are equipped with oxygen because most people are dying because of basic supply of oxygen. we should equip them so when people are infected, they have basic care and that will reduce mortality. By doing that, I think it will enable us to get to March and April when we will start to vaccinate,” he said.
Mr Nkengasong cautioned against the negative effect of a nationalist approach to vaccine acquisition and encouraged collaboration between member states, calling on them to embrace the ‘Whole of Africa’ approach as the best vaccine acquisition strategy.
The nationalist approach to vaccine acquisition, he warned, could go wrong, fuel anti-vaccine hesitancy, and in turn reverse modest gains currently apace in building impact on existing vaccines programmes.
He said: “…if the use of different vaccines begins to backfire, it fuels the anti-vaccine movement, it becomes difficult as it will impact the existing vaccine programmes we have in countries that is why we really want to have a coordinated approach with Africa CDC.”
On the challenge of local vaccine production, Mr Nkengasong warned against what he characterised as “political declarations,” asking nation-states of the region to break the culture of reliance on “external partners to determine our safety which is really not appropriate.” He then revealed that the work is already ongoing to facilitate a meeting to move discussions on the issue of local vaccine production forward.
“We are not waiting for any political declaration, we are already in the mode of facilitating other stakeholders to come together to begin to discuss how to move forward with the vaccine local production agenda,” he said.
Mr Nkengasong’s expectation came by way of cheering encouragement when telco giant MTN announced a $25 million donation in support of the vaccination programme.
This donation, the Africa CDC said, will be used to acquire an additional seven million doses of vaccines for health workers on/in the continent.
The need to prioritize health workers for vaccination is key if Africa is to succeed in the war against the virus as Mr Nkengasong noted: “There is a strong argument for that because they are not just caregivers for COVID patients but also caregivers to patients with other diseases like malaria, HIV, TB. If we allow COVID to affect our health workers then we run into a big risk of our health system collapsing because they constitute the backbone and we have a limited number of them. For a continent of 1.3 billion people, we have only about 3 million health workers; that is not a lot and we have to protect them jealously.”
Concluding, he urged Africans to cooperate with respected public health agencies to stay ahead of the curve.
The interview with Mr Nkengasong was held days before the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, warned that Africa risks being left behind in the COVID-19 vaccination.
“More than 70 million #COVID19 vaccine doses have been administered so far. Less than 20,000 of these were on the African continent,” the UN chief said in a Tweet on Sunday.
“A global immunity gap puts everyone at risk. We need a global vaccination campaign that reaches everyone, everywhere.”
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