Vaccine drought

  • The best guarantee against COVID-19 vaccine shortage is local manufacture

That states are running out of COVID-19 vaccines, and the Federal Government itself could be none the wiser, should shock no one.  Vaccine production and supply are completely out of local control.

To correct this anomaly, Nigeria could push to locally manufacture a brand of the available vaccines, to feed local needs; and much of the West African sub-region.

At least eight vaccine brands are available now: Oxford University-AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech , Gamaleya (Sputnik V), Sinovac (CoronaVac), Sinopharm, Novavax and Janseen/Johnson & Johnson, according to a BBC report of February 20, updated on April 23.

But until some form of local manufacture under licensing is achieved, Nigeria and other African countries will have to rely on supply by COVAX and its multilateral partners. The COVAX global target is two billion vaccine doses, by December 2021.  But Africa’s slot, from that stock, is 600 million doses — covering 20% of Africa’s population.  That is one out of every five.  Africa should, therefore, make up the huge shortfall.

But even out of these 600 million doses, only 18 million, mainly of AstraZenica, have been supplied, in a COVAX-African Union (AU) collaboration that started in February.  The next phase of supplies, from projections, won’t be earlier than May.  So, countries that run out of stock before then just have to wait — and so would Nigeria.

But the vaccine drought is no exclusive African problem.  No thanks to vaccine nationalism and regionalism, other countries outside the league of vaccine-patenting nations are in a similar bind.

These vaccine aristocrats are USA, UK, Sweden: collaborator with the UK on AstraZeneca, the EU-adopted vaccine; Germany: whose BioNTech worked with US Pfizer; Russia, China and Belgium, whose Janssen Phameceutica, an arm of the US Johnson & Johnson, worked on the J&J one-shot vaccine.

On the other hand, India’s Serum Institute, the world’s biggest manufacturer of all shade of vaccines, which COVAX depends on to roll out the bulk of global supplies, is suspending supplies elsewhere to face a COVID-19 flare at home, in a classic case of “physician, heal thyself!”

COVAX is the brainchild of Gavi, the vaccine alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the globe’s primal health agency.  Its mandate is to research, develop and manufacture COVID-19 vaccines; and negotiate fair pricing, in their supply to low-income countries, so that no one is left behind in the global push against COVID-19.

That’s why it’s no surprise that AU and other African private sector-led charity foundations and sundry agencies are working with COVAX to aid and facilitate adequate vaccine supplies to African countries.  But with the present outlook, these countries have to carefully balance their vaccine demands with supply realities.

Still again, the AU could pressure COVAX, using the instrumentality of WHO, to facilitate licenced vaccine production in African countries that have the capacity, like Nigeria (West Africa) South Africa (Southern Africa) Kenya (East Africa), Congo DR (Central Africa) and Egypt (North Africa), each of which can serve as regional hubs, for the timely supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

But guaranteeing the supply chain won’t automatically result in jabs-in-arms, if some ancillary activities are not integrated.  The most basic of these activities is a communication blitz for mass enlightenment.

The first round of vaccinations in Nigeria has seen a section of the media sensationalise the reportage, which could only drive vaccine resistance, by ramping up fear.  The federal health authorities, that exclusively drive the supply chain, should put in place a comprehensive vaccine safety and efficacy enlightenment programme.

Now, such a programme appears passable on the social media, where it ironically gets countered by hysterics and unfiltered anti-vaccine messages, in wild rumours and allied disinformation.  It is time, therefore, to broaden the channels of communication: social media; conventional media like radio, TV and newspapers; and traditional one-on-one, like town union meetings.

It is unlikely the Federal Government can succeed in its anti-COVID-19 push without aggressive enlightenment and penetrative mobilisation.  The goal should be to get everyone vaccinated so that the economy can again go on a full throttle.

It is good a ban has been placed on travellers from India (where COVID-19 is now spiking) and Brazil, where the virus has been wreaking untold havoc.  But the ban may have come too late, as many Nigeria-based Indians may have travelled and returned to base, from those mass, river-based yearly religious rituals, that have caused India’s latest COVID-19 crisis.  So, close surveillance of these Indian communities nationwide is imperative to avert any fresh virus crisis here.

It won’t also be a bad idea if the Federal Government can facilitate states wishing to buy extra COVID-19 vaccine doses. If the sovereign authorities can secure sub-national loans, they should also secure sub-nationals’ extra vaccine needs, for states that can afford it.

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