Vaccine collaboration is essential to beat Covid-19

By Buyile Matiwane Time of article published Aug 23, 2021

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OPINION: South Africa must lead Africa’s charge to collaborate continent-wide on the production of vaccines by AU member states, writes Buyile Matiwane.

The government has officially declared that Covid-19 vaccination is now open for the age group between 18–35 years.

This marks an important milestone in the fight against the deadly virus, a mark of relative progress in the drive to reach herd immunity and gradually return to some semblance of normalcy. This aspiration for a return to normalcy, seems far-flung without a consolidated and effective vaccine roll-out plan.

Factors that seem to impede effective vaccine roll-out, are amongst others, relatively high vaccine hesitancy and inadequate vaccine supply and distribution.

In the last family meeting held by President Ramaphosa, he strongly emphasized the need for our country to speed up its efforts around vaccine collaboration and the need to manufacture vaccines locally.

With all this in mind, and the undoubtable importance of vaccines and vaccination for public health and economic stability, it certainly seems the story line from a low budget sci-fi movie that our government can be exporting vaccine doses to Europe, especially with the context of a huge domestic scarcity of vaccine doses.

To date, only 10 million people have been vaccinated in our country. This is despite the fact that 32 million Johnson and Johnson (J&J) doses that were bottled and packaged at Aspen Pharmacare in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, have reportedly been shipped to European countries, notwithstanding the country awaiting most of the 31 million vaccine doses it ordered from J&J.

It seems relatively counter-intuitive for a country like our own, with a vaccine shortfall and very deep fissures of inequality and incapacity, would export vaccines to European countries while the numbers of infections and deaths rise undisrupted and unabated.

As we edge ever so closer to a predicted forth wave at the end of this year, we must spare no expense and use every resource and relationship at our disposal to double our efforts towards increasing vaccine production, collaboration and distribution.

South Africa must take a leading role advancing vaccine collaboration, which was a central topic at the SADC meeting held in Malawi in August. The Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Dr Vera Songwe stressed the need for the continent to produce its own vaccine.

This cannot be done without emphatic emphasis on the need to collaborate as a continent and as a country. A poignant example of this collaboration working is the recent collaboration between Bangladesh and China to co-produce a vaccine. On August 16, Chinese and Bangladeshi representatives met for a vaccine co-production signing ceremony in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is set to start local manufacture of China's Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine, as an agreement on co-production of the Chinese jab was signed via video conference with relevant authorities.

This move is in line and in keeping with global thinking around collaboration and the need for a collective effort to address the virus.

One can only hope that our government will consider objective facts when looking for vaccine partners, consider science, not politics.

The reality is that we cannot move progressively to addressing the vaccine distribution equality gap, if we are not pragmatic and progressive about who we partner with to produce and distribute vaccines locally.

This is in line with agreements reached, on Thursday, August 5, at the first meeting of the International Forum for Covid-19 Vaccine Cooperation.

At the International Forum, China vowed to make efforts to provide the world with 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of this year and to donate $100 million to COVAX to promote global vaccine provision, amid the rampaging Delta variant, that is bringing about more challenges for developing countries to access vaccines and combat the pandemic.

Professor Zha Daojiong, a professor of International Political Economy at The School of International Studies in Peking University (was one of my Professor while I was studying at Peking University), has stated that developing countries are facing three main challenges: the low accessibility to vaccines, the declining efficacy of existing vaccines against mutations, and the competition between different producers on the international market, making it more difficult for developing countries to choose the best vaccines and best partners for vaccine collaboration efforts.

To date, 82 percent of all Covid-19 vaccine doses that have been administered, worldwide, have been administered in high-income and upper-middle-income countries. By contrast, less than 1 percent have been administered in low-income countries.

Meanwhile, COVAX, the multinational vaccine facility, is struggling to meet this challenge, having distributed only 153 million doses out of 4.1 billion administered, worldwide, according to data tracked by Duke University.

The international community must work together to ensure accessibility and equity of vaccine distribution in developing countries. However, inequity between rich and poor regions in access to vaccines continues to worsen due to unbalanced resource distribution and a lackluster commitment to equitable distribution of such life altering vaccines.

In many cases, we have observed a slowness in realizing the promises made to assist poorer regions.

One thing is certain though, South Africa needs to play a leading role for the rest of the continent and make careful considerations around the best partners for equitable production and distribution.

I for one, think we should look to our Chinese allies for partnership and collaboration regarding the vaccine production and distribution initiatives that we must embark on. Let’s follow the science and the track record, the time to extend a hand of good will is now, for the greater public good.

* Buyile Matiwane is the Deputy President of the South African Students Congress tasked with international affairs. He spent six months in Beijing on a study exchange programme.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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