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.
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"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.
"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.