• The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in India, home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has lead to a halt in vaccine exports.
  • Countries relying on those vaccines, including African states benefiting from the COVAX scheme, are now facing delays and shortages exacerbated by an already slow rollout.
  • South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa warned about vaccine nationalism and called for vaccines to become a global public good.

Africa already had the slowest COVID-19 vaccine rollout of any continent, with less than 2% of the continent vaccinated. Now, recent announcements of export control from Indian manufacturers hit by the surge in cases in India is affecting the COVAX rollout on which 41 sub-Saharan countries are relying to vaccinate 20% of their population, according to the World Bank.

As the WHO Africa calls for countries to vaccinate as many people as possible with the first dose, there is still no clear information as to when Indian exports will resume, and African countries are struggling to find supplies for second doses.

Why the world can't leave Africa behind

These delays could have further long-lasting consequences on Sub-Saharan Africa’s economies, as countries affected by the delays will have to impose growth curbing lockdowns and write off benefits generated by tourism, according to Business Day South Africa.

“Recent announcements on COVID-19 vaccine exports will undoubtedly blunt the momentum behind efforts to ensure global, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines”, said Chido Munyati, head of Africa at the World Economic Forum. “This is the time for real public-private partnership as the world is facing one of its biggest challenges.”

Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) has also flagged the biological risks that leaving behind Africa could entail, including going back to “square one” if the virus keeps on mutating on the continent, becoming resistant to all vaccines. According to the BBC, about eight doses per 1,000 people have been administered in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 150 doses per 1,000 people globally.

In search of solutions

Unlike Morocco, which struck a deal in the early days of vaccine development and now tops the list of most administered doses on the continent, most African countries weren’t able to secure vaccines independently, prompting an assessment of strategies for the future.

Dr Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said a three-way approach is needed going forward, including stepping up testing, improving prevention and boosting vaccine and oxygen supplies. In addition, the recent development of a highly effective African-developed malaria vaccine has raised hopes across the continent for better vaccine coordination in the future.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa warned of vaccine nationalism at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda in January and more recently about vaccine apartheid, in reference to human rights concerns similar to those 20 years ago when sub-Saharan Africa was denied access to essential anti-retroviral treatments because of rigorous patent laws and witnessed millions of AIDS-related deaths. His recent call to make vaccines global public goods, with intellectual property data related to COVID-19 becoming available to all, garnered support from the US, raising hopes globally that no one will be left behind.

Still, with Sub-Saharan Africa unable to rapidly train health workers and develop stronger health systems in the current context, waived patents alone wouldn’t solve the unequal access to vaccines, and the world needs to focus on delivering the highest number of doses in the most efficient way.