The Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom, has praised Botswana and South Africa for detecting the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS- CoV-2, which has since been classified as a variant of concern.
In the same vein, he offered solidarity with Africans as they face a hard time battling the COVID-19 scourge with scant resources in an unsympathetic world.
In his opening remarks at a Stakeholder Engagement Event that was convened to give an update on implementation of vaccine partnerships and manufacturing in Africa this week, Dr Adhanom raised concern that to this day, African countries are lagging behind in vaccination and most have not been able to secure enough vaccine doses to inoculate their populations.
“More than 80 percent of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries (while) low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6 percent of all vaccines,” he said.
Thankfully, he noted, Africa is beginning to get doses through COVAX and AVAT. “We’re pleased that COVAX and AVAT are now picking up speed as supply increases, but we are still a long way from reaching our targets to vaccinate 40 percent of the population of all countries by the end of this year and 70 percent by the middle of next year,” the WHO director said.
According to his briefing, over 100 African countries are yet to reach the 40 percent target and will not achieve it this year due to their inability to access vaccines. But the vaccine inequality means the virus has an opportunity to spread “and mutate in ways no one can prevent or predict”, he noted.
“I thank South Africa and Botswana for rapidly detecting, sequencing and reporting this new variant,” Dr Adhanom said, referring to Omicron. He slammed Western countries that imposed a travel ban on southern African countries since the emergence of the new variant. “It is deeply disappointing to me that some countries continue to block direct flights from southern Africa due to the Omicron variant,” he said.
“The persistent inequity in access to vaccines and the emergence of the Omicron variant show why the world needs more widespread, regionally based vaccine production, as well as intellectual property reform to share these vital global health public goods, technology transfer, sharing of knowhow, and training.”
Africa to manufacturer own vaccines
He disclosed that the WHO is hand-holding Africa to forge partnerships that will see COVID-19 vaccines being manufactured on African soil for equitable distribution among member states in a bid to end vaccine inequality.
He said, since the last meeting in April, there has been progress regarding plans to set up vaccine firms in Africa. “First, as you know, a month ago the Africa Medicines Agency treaty entered into force, paving the way to improve the quality, safety, efficacy, availability and affordability of medicines and vaccines across the continent,” the head of the WHO said. “We will continue to provide technical and financial support until Africa Medicines Agency is ready.
“Second, Egypt, Morocco, Rwanda and Senegal have all signed agreements or Memorandums of Understanding for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing in their countries (while) Algeria has begun production.”
According to Dr Adhanom, the WHO and partners have set up an mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa which will go a long way in boosting vaccine production in Africa. “WHO remains committed to working with the AU, its member states, the Africa CDC, the African Medicines Agency, and the Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing, to support the development of domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity as part of our shared efforts to build a healthier, safer, fairer future for Africa.”