AU Covid-19 vaccine doses welcomed, but experts say they are not enough
Johannesburg - With the AU having acquired 270 million vaccine doses for the continent, questions remain about the deliverables as the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the impoverished continent.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chairs the AU, announced the acquisition on Wednesday.
There have been concerns around Africa’s ability to access vaccines as European countries and the US have long begun rolling out vaccines to their citizens.
South Africa leads in Covid-19 cases on the continent.
The 270 million vaccine doses, acquired through the AU's newly established African vaccine acquisition task team, will be supplied from pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
Ramaphosa said the first 50 million batches of vaccine doses could be expected between April and June. He said all other doses should be delivered this year.
The latest acquisition is expected to complement the vaccine-acquiring methods offered by the World Health Organization's Covax facility – which has promised 600 million vaccine doses for the continent.
"As a result of our own efforts we have so far secured a commitment of a provisional amount of 270 million vaccines from three major suppliers: Pfizer, AstraZeneca (through Serum Institute of India) and Johnson & Johnson," Ramaphosa said.
The additional acquisition has been welcomed but experts warn that vaccinating a continent with over a billion people will not be easy.
Dr Aslam Dasoo, from the Progressive Health Forum, said if put in context the additional doses would be minimal in vaccinating large parts of the population. He said additional vaccines were welcomed but to make a dent and to aim for the herd immunity needed to ensure the virus is stabilised, more procurement needs to be made.
"What we understand about it is that they have probably been placed on order. The continent will receive the first 50 million in the second quarter. It is going to take some time for those vaccines to arrive in their numbers.
"There are 54 countries in Africa and in distribution that would mean about less than 1 million doses per country. That would mean South Africa would receive 800 000 additional doses which would be helpful but nowhere near what we need," Dasoo said.
Vaccinology Professor Shabir Madhi, from Wits, shared similar sentiments and warned that the focus should be on whether African countries have the needed systems in place to roll out the vaccines.
"No, it is not enough. Even if you only target adults in the continent you will still probably be short of vaccines for another 400 million adults," he said. "I think we need to stop fooling ourselves in terms of claiming victories by talking about 270 million doses of vaccines. It's about when the vaccines become available.
"There needs to be more openness about which vaccine it is and when those vaccines will become available and which countries will it be distributed to and what quantity. And more importantly, the bigger issue is the timelines, and another issue is the ability of governments to make sure that people become immunised. Vaccines are useless if they sit in depots," Madhi said.