WHO warns slow vaccination rate makes Africa vulnerable

Johannesburg- The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that more waves could be building as the body’s updated forecasts warn that Africa may not reach 70% vaccine coverage until August 2024.

The world is currently gripped by the Omicron variant which was first detected by South African scientists.

WHO said the upsurge in new cases coupled with low hospitalizations was particularly marked in SA, which has experienced a 66% rise in new cases during the past seven days.

“We are cautiously optimistic that deaths and severe illness will remain low in the current wave, but slow vaccine rollout in Africa means both will be much higher than they should be,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

“We’ve known for quite some time now that new variants like Beta, Delta, or Omicron could regularly emerge to spark new outbreaks globally, but vaccine-deprived regions like Africa will be especially vulnerable.”

As of this week, vaccination coverage remains highly variable across the continent with only 20 African countries having vaccinated at least 10% of their population – the global target WHO had set for September 2021. Only six countries have hit the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40% of their population, while only two countries – Mauritius and Seychelles – have reached the 70% coverage seen as essential for controlling the pandemic.

While many African countries have struggled to secure enough doses for their citizens, South Africa is facing a different problem – vaccine hesitation.

According to experts, a lot of factors contribute to hesitancy towards Covid-19 vaccines – with the main ones relating to safety, efficacy and novelty.

Professor Shabir Madhi, faculty dean of health sciences and the director of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research at Wits, said the fact that different variants were found in SA was not suggesting that it was somewhat unique in the evolution of the virus.

“South Africa has one of the most advanced sequencing programmes for Covid-19 across the world. The ability to detect variants is because of our capacity to do sequencing and the intensity in which we do it. Variants are occurring throughout the world in many other countries, the only difference is for many other African countries, as an example, they simply do not have the capacity to do sequencing.”

Madhi said one of the factors that contributed to the evolution and the development of new variants, which were more transmissible or able to evade antibody activity, as well as the power of vaccines, was a high percentage of people that were compromised.

“They tend to share the virus longer, which means the virus has great opportunity over time to develop mutations, which might become clinically irrelevant,” he said.

Africa has the world’s lowest vaccination rates due largely to “vaccine nationalism” shown by rich countries, which have been accused of hoarding vaccines.

In a landmark move, India and South Africa early this year asked the World Trade Organization to allow all countries to choose to neither grant nor enforce patents and other intellectual property related to Covid-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic until global herd immunity is achieved.

The National Education Health and Allied Workers Union has also raised concerns in what it calls “vaccine imperialism” where richer nations are colluding with big pharmaceuticals at the expense of the poor countries.

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