As the global COVID vaccine campaign is forging ahead, the largest vaccine drive in the African continent is well underway. Despite more than 3billion doses distributed globally, the continent with 17% of the entire world’s population has received less than 2% of shots till now. With more than 80% of doses procured by residents of high- and upper-middle-income countries; low- and middle-income countries are facing a global vaccine scramble amongst which Africa lies far ahead in the queue.

In spite of over 22 million vaccine doses supplied to the continent, forty-nine African countries’ fragile gain is threatened by the global procurement mechanism. And the more contagious delta mutation is further making Africans more vulnerable to the deadly third wave of coronavirus.

Delayed & Scarce Delivery of Vaccines in Africa

To vaccinate just 70% of the global population against COVID, an estimated 11 billion vaccine doses would be required, but only 3.2 billion doses had been apportioned until the fourth of July. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, as per the current vaccination rate, by the end of 2021, about six million doses would have been rolled out. With the considerable population and lack of enough ‘existing or potential vaccine manufacturing’ companies, Africa depends on overseas vaccine distributors for 99% of its entire vaccine needs. And the current struggle against the coronavirus outbreak is putting the continent on the edge of the knife.

The second wave of COVID in India, the largest manufacturer of COVID vaccines, forced the country to halt the export of vaccines for meeting up domestic needs. African countries, relying mainly on the Covax, manufactured in the Serum Institute of India faced the worst consequences. As a result, between the month of February and May, Africa administered only 18.2 million of 66 million doses expected to be provided through COVAX.

According to World Health Organisation, only 26 million Africans, making a little over 1% of the entire continent’s population are fully vaccinated by now. In the wake of the halt at vaccine supply from the major source, African Union is exploring other available options. John Nkengasong, Africa CDC director, said in June’s briefing, “Let me put it bluntly, we are not winning in Africa this battle against the virus so it does not really matter to me whether the vaccines are from COVAX or anywhere. All we need is rapid access to vaccines,”.

At a summit in Cornwall, UK, in June the G7 wealthy nations pledged to provide extra doses to low- and middle-income countries by the end of December 2022. The major contribution was promised by the US with 500 million doses by Pfizer, New York, and BioNTech, Mainz, Germany.

Hurdles In Vaccine Roll-Out

Lack of vaccines is not the only problem holding Africa back in its biggest vaccination drive. The relatively more demanding cold-chain storage condition of Pfizer/BioNTech (frozen at -70C) is making it hard to be precluded or produced in Africa. The necessary availability of new ultra-cold freezers, specialized coolers, and refrigerated vehicles before delivery of these COVID vaccines is further making the rollout extremely tough. Even though some countries are able to store a small quantity of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, the poorer nations are unable to afford the luxury.

The African Union and African Disease Control’s conference in April have signed up for an ambitious partnership of promoting indigenous vaccine manufacturing plants. But to accomplish the dream, a sustainable partnership from the vaccine research, development, and manufacturing giants mainly concentrated in the US and Europe will be needed; Africa cannot be left alone.

More technological transfer, sharing of vaccine research and development information, industrial process, and related intellectual property from the world leaders would help the country march faster towards its ambition. The World Health Organisation’s establishment of a tech transfer hub aims to lift the barrier by training people from developing countries about the manufacturing of mRNA vaccines.

Ready to access financing from the local investors will further motivate native companies to be a part of the homegrown vaccine industry. Many pan-African organizations, including the African Development Bank, have pledged to invest in the vaccine industry. Further international supporters including the European Union, IFC, and several other financial institutions are following the suit. Moreover, biomedical research and development must be enhanced for building a robust infrastructure for clinical trials, which is drastically missing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa’s COVID Vaccine: Conclusion

The current COVID crisis has highlighted the stark vaccine distribution inequality. It is clear that though microbes readily cross borders, vaccines and other essential facilities are often blocked at customs, and the contrast has not been more evident anywhere else as in Africa.

Vaccine production in the places like Africa would not be possible without its own set of challenges. But the global health emergency has given many developing nations the taste of being left out. But it also is a chance to realize that relying completely on exports for such future calamities could push them off the cliff.