By HENRY OWINO
Experts of vaccines and immunization across Africa are urging the international community and African leaders to take tangible actions to ensure the continent has equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr Omu Anzala, professor of virology and immunology and lead researcher at the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative at the Institute of Clinical Research (KAVI-ICR), Department of Medical Microbiology, University of Nairobi, Kenya, stated: “Africa should start planning logistics and distribution of vaccines instead of being skeptical and hesitant. The emerging global issue right now is acceptance of the vaccines, availability and its access.”
Addressing Africa journalists during a Press Briefing, organized by the Nairobi-based Africa Science Media Centre (AfriSMC), on Wednesday, November 25, 2020, Dr Anzala, urged African governments to allocate adequate resources to secure adequate supply of Covid-19 vaccines that are likely to be approved for immunization of people against the deadly pandemic.
Dr Anzala urged African policy makers not worry about the speed or safety andefficacy of vaccines, and instead they should start planning for necessary logistics to ensure the cold chain of the vaccines.
“This is not going to be the standard cold chain we know about the other vaccines. So, we want to appreciate African countries putting together logistics for the cold chain and beginning to plan how these vaccines arrive locally,” Dr Anzala cautions.
“The cold chain required for distribution of the vaccine is not going to be similar to the usual child vaccines,” he said, adding “…as a medical doctor, I know very well that the best hope for controlling any infectious disease is a vaccine. Even in places where we have treatment, people die but vaccines save lives, and it does this in two ways: Either they can offer protection from the disease or offer protection from infections. It means that once you have been vaccinated, you are likely not going to get infected with COVID-19 virus.”
Dr Anzala, one of Africa’s leading virologists, reiterated the significance of prioritizing who should get the vaccine first, once it becomes available. He said it is critical for people at higher risk of getting infected and experiencing complications to be considered first. “This a subject policymakers and experts should promptly discuss”, he noted.
For example, evidence shows that for the older people, there is an increased mortality rate even without the comorbidities. Thus, shielding the elderly, frontline workers and those with pre-existing medical conditions (comorbidities) will save lives. ‘‘We have a problem of anti-vaccine lobby groups that needs to be discussed and addressed,” he said, recalling the confusion created in Kenya when the catholic clergy mounted a protracted anti-polio vaccination campaigns that delayed the much-needed polio vaccination process.
The healthcare professionals, opinion leaders, clerics, policy makers and the media should be tapped to help educate the public on safety and efficacy of vaccines in order to avoid misconceptions and mistrust of life-saving vaccines, he said.
Dr Anzala is urging East African nations to come together and negotiate for vaccines as a consortium so that they can get price concessions due to large quantities ordered. It is dangerous for African countries not to allocate enough funds to purchase the vaccines, pinning their hopes on donors. Developed countries are doing the opposite. They have already started allocating resources to buy and distribute the vaccines. The United Kingdom, for example, has pre-ordered 195 million dozes of the AstraZeneca vaccine for its citizens.
The top three vaccine candidates by Oxford University, Moderna and Pfizer are based on platforms that have been previously used. Although they can all be trusted for safety and efficacy, as a measure of good practice and to be double sure that they will return positive results in Africa.Therefore, African countries should also conduct clinical trials of the vaccines in their populations.
Currently in Africa, South Africa and Kenya are participating in the Oxford University vaccine trials, Dr Anzala, noted, adding “It would also be appropriate to test the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to better understand their performance in an African setting.”
Prof Anzala cautioned that even more infections are likely to be recorded in Africa due to super spreader events, such as crowding in bars, homes, eateries, weddings and parties, as the festive season approaches. The continent can only slow down the second wave of infection if stricter measures are taken to ensure that people continue to wear masks, was hands, sanitize and keep social distance as recommended by infectious disease experts and the World Health Organization.
Successful development, trials, approval, access and acceptance will be a game-changer on the continent, observed Prof Anzala, one of the leading HIV Aids vaccine hunters in Africa.
He said, one key issue is how vaccines can adapt to Africa’s existing distribution frameworks. For examples, the freezers that can store some vaccines at the required -70-degree Celsius temperature rarely found in Africa.
The main challenge will be distribution and administration and not necessarily the per-person dosage cost. “If it all goes well, I see towards the end of first quarter 2021 two vaccines that are in frontline could be available, but this could be expedited if African countries start budgeting to purchase the vaccines,’’ Dr Anzala said.
He indicated that the African Union is interested in negotiating to fund access to vaccines without necessarily depending on the donor community.
Dr Anzala appealed to the media to share only credible and verified information from experts with the public. “We have seen some media houses spreading propaganda, causing fear and anxiety.”
“This has brought a spike of mental illness cases. So, the fourth estate should communicate confirmed evidence-based information that is reliable to reduce this skepticism and vaccine hesitancy.”