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Could second-generation vaccines accelerate Africa’s slow immunisation drive?

While South-East Asian countries are moving away from Sinovac jabs, African countries like South Africa are embracing the Chinese vaccine.

While South-East Asian countries are moving away from Sinovac jabs, African countries like South Africa are embracing the Chinese vaccine.

Published Jul 28, 2021


Amidst the global pandemic, national economies are remaining resilient as vaccines roll out.

However, in recent weeks concerns have increased regarding its efficiency. With most Asian countries relying heavily on China’s Sinovac vaccine, Thailand and Indonesia have now announced that they will further immunise vaccinated health workers with a booster shot of Moderna or AstraZeneca.

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The change of strategy comes after 32 fully vaccinated health workers died of Covid, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the Sinovac vaccine, particularly against the virus’s more contagious Delta variant. However, while South-East Asian countries are moving away from their dependency on the Sinovac jabs, other countries like South Africa are embracing the Chinese vaccine.

Having approved the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine in early July, South Africa was offered 10 million doses of the vaccine by China last week. As such, South Africa will join the ranks of developing countries, including Tanzania and Zimbabwe, who are turning to the less effective Chinese vaccine to bolster scant supplies as the Delta variant continues its spread.

Beijing has been eager to sell or donate Sinovac to African countries, in what political commentators are labelling a ‘soft-power’ bid to increase China’s global influence. This tactic is in stark juxtaposition to Western nations stockpiling enough vaccines to immunise two or three times their population while consistently failing to share with less wealthy countries. Nevertheless, second-generation vaccines currently in development will open up a new supply chain of efficacious covid vaccines, which could relieve Africa’s reliance on these problematic suppliers.

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Slow vaccination rates are a pan-African problem

In the latest covid South Africa statistics, the country has inoculated 5.5 million people, meaning 7.4% of the population is either partially or fully vaccinated. Despite that, the countries inconsistent vaccine supply also means that it’s not enough to ensure herd immunity any time soon. Thus far, the rollout has been plagued with problems ever since activists revealed the absence of a national vaccine strategy in January this year.

The stumbling blocks include selling the AstraZeneca jabs to other African Union member states after a small trial suggested that the Anglo-Swedish vaccine offered minimal protection against the beta variant prevalent in South Africa and the discarding of 2 million contaminated Johnson & Johnson vials in June.

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Last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to temporarily waive patents on covid vaccines to permit local production fell on deaf ears. Just last week, widespread looting triggered by the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma meant distribution came to a halt as medical supply chains and clinics fell victim to destruction and looting.

If the government still has their work cut out as cases soar, South Africa is doing relatively well compared to regional neighbours. Approximately 18 million Africans, less than 2% of the continent’s 1.3 billion residents, have been fully vaccinated. Even the African Union’s modest self-imposed target of complete vaccination for 20% of citizens by the end of August is improbable at this rate.

Despite countries continuing their road to economic recovery, the recent Delta variant has now triggered a fourth wave across Africa, with a million new cases in a month and a 43% surge in deaths in a single week. As the need for immediate vaccination gains urgency, it is more apparent than ever that neither the Western nor the Chinese vaccines offer silver-bullet solutions.

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New vaccines AKS-452 and Novavax could level the playing field

The covid vaccines, particularly the mRNA jabs produced by Pfizer and Moderna, offer a powerful shield against the disease caused by the coronavirus. Still, they are far from a perfect solution for the global rollout. In Africa, vaccine hoarding by wealthier nations is compounded by high price points and complex storage requirements making these vaccines particularly poorly adapted to the prevailing warm temperatures and all-too-often under-equipped health facilities across the continent.

However, the situation is set to change as second-generation vaccines finally promise sufficient supplies for these countries. South Africa, in particular, has an opportunity to make up for delayed action in the past by pro-actively securing doses.

Two American vaccines which hold particular promise for African nations have come out with promising results recently. The first is AKS-452, produced by Massachusetts-based Akston Biosciences, which is well-adapted to the public health specificities of African nations. This is because the vaccine remains shelf-stable at room temperature for at least four months, making it easy to transport and store. Due to its low-cost antibody production, the vaccine can be mass-produced cheaply, with a single 2,000-litre production line able to make over one billion doses a year.

AKS-452 also targets parts of the virus that are conserved among several variants, meaning it is more likely to work against future mutations. After encouraging Phase I data, the vaccine is currently in Phase II trials and expects to publish results in the third quarter of 2021.

Another vaccine developed by Novavax in Maryland in partnership with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and named NVX-CoV2373, has also achieved promising results in trials. With the US demonstrating slowing vaccination rates despite an oversupply of Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs, Novavax is specifically aiming to make up for the Covid-19 vaccine shortage in developing countries. Novavax’s two-dose vaccine showed 90.4% efficacy in key trials, meaning it will apply for FDA approval this September.

These new vaccines offer African politicians a second chance to shore up confidence in citizens by enabling well-planned communication about vaccines ahead of their distribution. What’s more, improved knowledge of the Covid-19 virus enables scientists to improve on first-generation vaccines, making them more resistant against new mutations and even future coronaviruses.