By Sharon Atieno
African countries should carry out research along COVID-19 roll out to build on their knowledge concerning the disease among their own populations and inform policies, expert says.
“It should not just be a roll out where we are just giving out vaccines but we are also learning from it,” he said, noting that it will help in picking out pharmacovigilance and any side effects that were not identified during phase three of vaccine development.
Prof. Anzala adds that the research will give more information on the African immune responses, especially of those who had COVID-19 and also in order to guide policy.
Though COVID-19 virus has resulted in several variants of interest (Eta, Lota and Epsilon) and concern (Delta, Gamma, Beta and Alpha), there is inadequate knowledge on how these variants are circulating and mixing with one another in the community as well as their impact, Prof. Anzala said.
“We cannot afford to say we are just rolling out vaccines. We must roll out vaccines but must continue with very active research to really understand how these variants are mixing out there in various communities because this must be fed back to the scientists in order to make the next generation of COVID vaccines,” he urged.
According to Prof. Anzala, even under natural infection, those who get COVID and recover, initially have a very robust immunity against COVID but with time the immunity declines. All the vaccines will naturally more or less behave the same, he adds.
Boosters will be there in the long run, Prof. Anzala said but they should be country-specific and informed by the country’s own data on who to boost and when to boost.
He mentioned that KAVI has an ongoing study where they are recruiting those who have received vaccines and are following them up to look at the antibody titer (level of antibody in the blood) to find out how high the titer is and how quickly the antibodies are declining.
“We also need our own local data to inform whether we shall need a third dose and who requires the third dose so that it is not just information we are getting from outside,” Prof. Anzala reiterated.
Though he cited that they are facing funding challenges, the study has already recruited about 60 people and still calling for more people.
The study involves collecting blood samples on a monthly basis to examine the status of the titer.
Vaccination in Africa
Though about 46 out of 100 people globally have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, Africa’s vaccinated populace remains low at only 7%.
About 60 million people in Africa have received the COVID-19 jab, with countries like Seychelles, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritius having more than 40% of their populations already vaccinated, according to our World in Data.
Public health and legal/administrative interventions are the only strategies there are to increase uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in the continent, he said.
In public health promotion, citizens are given information and education and made aware of the promotive and preventative tool kits available, including masking, social distancing, sanitizing and vaccinating. It can also include giving social and financial incentives to members of the public to go for vaccination.
The legal and or administrative interventions involve mandatory vaccinations entrenched in law and policies to enforce all eligible persons to vaccinate before being allowed into public places and offices. He gave the example of France where such polices were implemented and led to increased numbers of the French being vaccinated.
“The economy should be opened but these measures must be in place prior to that,” Prof. Anzala said, adding: “the vaccines work, they prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death.”
Prof. Anzala also urged African countries to leverage on the current platforms available to develop regional vaccine manufacturing.
“Africa sits at a very strategic position because of the new platforms. Making mRNA and DNA vaccines has now quickly come of age. If Africa organizes itself very quickly, using this is the technology, and within a very short time, we can have regional centers within Africa to start making these vaccines,” he advised, noting that the polio and measles vaccine can go the mRNA way as the big drums and cultures that were needed for them before and not needed anymore.
He revealed that there are ongoing discussions and Uganda is setting the pace. The Uganda Virus Research Institute is putting together capacity to make mRNA. This is the first step, making sure that the mRNA or DNA is stable then tagging on to it the antigens of interest, Prof. Anzala explained.
He added that African countries can leverage on regional blocks to make different vaccines in order to avoid competition and increase collaboration through exchange.
“The margin of the vaccine is very little and the testing it goes through to ensure that we get that vaccine is very difficult. Africa is at the verge and if we can leap frog and move into this new platform, we can actually begin to make vaccines for ourselves,” he concluded said.