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Why A Desperate Africa is Wasting COVID-19 Vaccines

April 3, 2020 - MADAGASCAR. With Madagascar’s health system under strain from the COVID-19 pandemic and schools shuttered for the foreseeable future, the health, education, and overall wellbeing of the Malagasy people are increasingly at risk. Photo: World Bank / Henitsoa Rafalia

While the United States has seen an overall decline in cases of COVID-19 over the past months as vaccination numbers increase, the situation in Africa tells a different story. 

South Africa is currently experiencing its third surge of infections since the start of the pandemic and many, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, fear that it could be the worst yet.

In a speech announcing a new order for tight lockdown, the President proclaimed: “We are in the grip of a devastating wave that by all indications seems like it will be worse than those that preceded it.”

One of the reasons for the high infection rates is the lack of vaccinations within South Africa. In a country of around 59 million people, only about 2.7 million have gotten a shot. With such a small percentage of people vaccinated, infections have caused hospitals to become desperate in caring for the infected.

While South Africa has been hit hard by the Delta variant, it is not the only African nation struggling to fight the high infection rates. Though no cases of the Delta variant have been reported in Namibia, the nation northwest of South Africa, almost 90,000 people contracted COVID-19 with only around 123,000 vaccine doses given according to the World Health Organization. As Namibia’s health care system and infrastructure are mightily underequipped to handle all these new cases, the nation is battling to care for the infected and provide them with the necessary oxygen equipment to keep them alive. 

Namibia and South Africa’s struggles tell of a larger issue in Africa: many vaccines there are being wasted. 

As Kenya has used over 90% of its vaccine supply of Oxford-AstraZeneca doses, it is on pace to join Botswana, Eswatini, Ghana, Rwanda, Togo, and Senegal as African nations that have used up their doses. The lack of supply has undoubtedly hindered these nations’ abilities to effectively vaccinate their people, ultimately making the fast-spreading Delta variant an even more dangerous threat. 

While Kenya is using up their supply, South Sudan provides a different scenario, planning to discard around 59,000 doses. Similarly, Malawi disposed of nearly 20,000. Both of these countries were forced to do this for the same simple reason: they expired. (BBC)

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 925,000 that had expiration dates of April 13 were sent to 13 different African Nations by the African Union’s African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, or AVATT. As many of these countries received these doses two weeks before they were set to expire, they had little time to administer any of them. Even the WHO has called the disposal of expired vaccines “deeply regrettable.”

In May, Africa accounted for less than 2% of globally administered vaccines. Through this statistic, it is easy to see the systematic problem that gives Africa such a disadvantage. While donated vaccines are the key to aiding nations struggling against Covid-19, it is their poor ability to administer them in the first place that is responsible for the difficulties. For example, over 1 million AstraZeneca doses had to be returned by the Democratic Republic of the Congo to COVAX, a vaccine-sharing facility, since government officials did not believe they could successfully administer them before their expiration date. This is a massive issue in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since less than 9,000 people have received doses in a country of 86 million people.

Health sectors in many of these countries are currently urging their governments to prioritize the distribution of vaccines by their expiration dates. Furthermore, the WHO is instructing nations to line up their vaccination rollouts to correspond with vaccine expiry dates. Both of these suggestions are in hope that future wastage of vaccines can be minimized as much as possible as it will be critical for them to do so.

Because India, a major producer of vaccines, is still amidst its high number of COVID-19 infections, it has impacted Africa’s ability to vaccinate its population. Hence, a vaccine shortage has occurred, and no amount of doses can go to waste. As the threat of the Delta variant spreading further and faster looms over Africa, it will be crucial that more people on the continent become vaccinated, and a step in the right direction will be to avoid wasting vaccines by prioritizing their administration before they expire.

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