Mass vaccination against COVID-19 is unlikely to start in Africa until midway through next year and keeping vaccines cold could be a big challenge, the continent's disease control group said on Thursday.
Some European countries expect to start rolling out vaccination campaigns as early as January.
But health campaigners are worried that Africa will find itself near the back of the queue for COVID-19 vaccines after wealthier nations signed a raft of bilateral vaccine supply deals with pharmaceutical companies.
"We are very concerned as a continent that we will not have access to vaccines in a timely fashion," said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an African Union agency.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
"It will not be, in my view, up to (the) middle of next year before we truly start to get vaccination into Africa," he told a news conference.
He said there were also logistical problems to overcome in Africa, a hot continent with perennial challenges supplying electricity.
The continent of 1.3 billion people has recorded more than 2.1 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally, though it has had a lower death rate than other continents.
It has recorded only 50,000 deaths, because African countries have imposed strict lockdowns and have generally younger populations.
Many African nations have expressed interest in taking part in the COVAX global vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organization. It is expected – but not certain – that less wealthy countries will receive vaccines at low or no cost via COVAX next year.
Nkengasong said his agency's aim was for 60% of the continent's population to be vaccinated eventually.
He said so far the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate offered "the best possibility for distribution in Africa" because its temperature storage conditions were less strict than others. Shots being trialled by Pfizer and Moderna have to be kept at extremely cold temperatures.South Africa is seeking to buy vaccines for 10% of its 58 million population via COVAX, Reuters reported earlier this week.