African Countries Look Beyond West for Vaccines

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Continent turns to China and Russia to supplement WHO-backed Covax initiative for developing nations

African countries are looking beyond the west in the global vaccine race dominated by Europe and the US, with policymakers across the continent seeking jabs from the likes of Russia and China.

Officials in countries from Kenya to Guinea are in talks with China and Russia to pro-cure vaccines to supplement the global WHO-backed Covax facility that aims to provide developing countries with enough jabs for at least 20% of their populations.

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Nigeria’s drugs regulator has received dossiers for two vaccines, from Russia and India, as Africa’s most populous country seeks to work around the global shortage, health minister Osagie Ehanire told reporters on Monday night. It has been hard for African countries to buy western-developed jabs as most have been pre-ordered by wealthier countries.

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“We have been keeping a strict eye on… the scramble for vaccines, which has pitched some countries against each other in Europe, as wealthy, high-income countries have pre-paid to allocate vaccines to themselves,” he said. The WHO had estimated that 95% of vaccines produced thus far have gone to 10 wealthy countries.

Mr Ehanire did not name the vaccines the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control was considering. But Russia has heavily promoted its flagship Sputnik V vaccine, which has shown 91.6% efficacy against symptomatic Covid-19 in clinical trials, according to a Lancet peer review released on Tuesday. Guinea and Algeria have already approved Sputnik for use.

China has made vaccine diplomacy a key aspect of its outreach to Africa over the past year, with President Xi Jinping promising in August that vaccinations for Africans would be a “priority”. But while its leading Sinopharm vaccine has been approved for domestic use in China, it has yet to be delivered to the continent.

Boss Mustapha, head of Nigeria’s presidential task force on Covid-19, warned that the rapid pace of vaccinations in other parts of the world could leave Nigerians unable to travel freely. “So we must try as much as possible to get ourselves on course with vaccination,” he told reporters.

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Officials said Nigeria would receive an initial batch of 16mn doses starting this month through Covax. They expect an additional 41mn doses at the end of April via an African Union initiative that has secured 400mn doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 270mn additional doses for the continent.

This week, South Africa took delivery of its first batch of Covishield, the Indian name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India. Pretoria ordered 1.5mn doses to immunize health workers after domestic criticism that it was relying too heavily on deliveries from Covax.

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Richard Mihigo, coordinator of immunization and vaccine development at the WHO regional office for Africa, said that between Covax deliveries and their own bilateral purchases, African nations could realistically aim to immunize 30-35% of their populations by the end of the year.

Patrick Amoth, director-general for health at Kenya’s health ministry, said Nairobi was working with Covax to secure some 20mn free doses this year. However, he said the country was in talks with China, Russia, and India about other vaccines. “We will end up with a hybrid system where we have a variety of vaccines,” he said.

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There have been concerns about Africa’s cold-chain capacity but the AU, along with both national and state governments, has said that local refrigeration capacity had been boosted in recent months.

Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest carrier, which has funnelled medical equipment to countries across Africa and Latin America, has established an air bridge to transport cold vaccines from Shenzhen in China to Addis Ababa. From there, the jabs could be distributed across Africa, the airline said.

Africa has so far escaped the worst of the pandemic, re-cording just 4% of global deaths for 17% of the global population, according to official figures. However, it is currently experiencing a second wave worse than the first.

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