By Henry Neondo
Health experts in Africa have urged African countries to exploit any of three available routes to access vaccines to protect citizens from COVID-19.
According to the experts, massive advances in vaccine science over the past year offered hope, but the global community needed to learn from its mistakes with inequitable HIV care access 20 years ago, as well as the advances made in ever-evolving annual influenza vaccinations.
However, Dr Phionah Atuhebwe, an award-winning public health specialist and new vaccination medical officer with WHO Africa Region said, Africa could exploit the WHO and CEPI GAVI’s COVAX initiative, the fastest route, pooled demand to accelerate manufacturing and ensured enough supply for 20% of Africa’s population.
In addition, Atuhebwe said, there is the African Union’s Africa Vaccine Allocation Task Team (AVATT) which was securing 670 million doses for Africa and the Countries’ bilateral agreements with vaccine manufacturers.
Atuhebwe said equitable distribution, national regulations, population targeting, and vaccine hesitancy were the four greatest barriers to vaccine distribution and acceptance in Africa. Countries had to explore emergency use authorization avenues, and adopt detailed national vaccine deployment plans which included details such as their target populations, vaccination schedules, chains of command, provisions for special import permits, and indemnity agreements with manufacturers so that they could do crucial “micro-planning”.
Dr Anban Pillay, Deputy Director-General of the South African National Department of Health, said they were in talks with all the major vaccine providers, and their advisory committee was reviewing the efficacy and practicalities of all vaccines in the context of the SA variant and other factors such as HIV prevalence. The government had national committees for vaccine selection, rollout, distribution, administration, and communications, and consulted with stakeholders in the private and public sectors, associations of professionals, labor unions, and civil society.
The South African government prioritized choosing vaccines that would be effective against the South African variant and prevent hospitalizations and mortality. His department also prioritized communicating with the public in non-science language to increase vaccine trust and acceptance.
Pillay was adamant about the importance of electronic data management to monitor supply, vaccine uptake, and coverage, and adverse events – a vital tool that was not available during previous pandemics.
South Africa would be vaccinating about 1.2 million health workers in Phase 1, a much bigger group including the elderly and those with comorbidities in Phase 2, and would launch mass vaccinations by the third quarter of 2021, Pillay said.
“If we do things right with research and investment for COVID vaccines, we could have greatly improved vaccines down the road. One vision would be that we have universal vaccines for all Coronaviruses and flues – that’s something vaccine science can deliver,” said Dr Tim Mastro, Chief Science Officer at FHI 360,
Responding to international research findings that only three out of four people were willing to be vaccinated, FHI 360 developed a simple three-step guide to help health authorities win public trust for their vaccine programs.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control (CDC) target of 780 million vaccinations over the next 12 months would require 3.5 million doses a day for a single dose or 7 million a day for a double dose. “A vast number of factors have to go right for that to work.”
“We need countries to urgently invest in integrated digital and data solutions early on, and not when they are already in crisis mode, in the worst heat of the fire. Paper causes major issues.”
“Essentially, we’re not developing all of these things just for COVID – 19 we need it for all diseases. We need a global control tower approach. Don’t make COVID another vertical disease program, use it as an opportunity to improve all major healthcare systems for the future.”
Dr Ernest Darkoh, co-founder of BroadReach, Schwab Foundation board member said achieving herd immunity quickly was a massive logistical feat that required pragmatic micro-planning. This entailed proper cold chain and storage management, ensuring that vaccines were handled and prepared timeously and correctly, that staff arrived early enough to prepare vaccines before patients arrived, that patients arrived on schedule, that syringes were safely disposed of, and that proper electronic records were kept along every step of the process so that rollouts could be managed well on the macro and micro levels.
“At BroadReach we’ve been obsessed with what makes programmes tick on the ground on a Monday morning at a large scale. When the vaccines arrive in pallets at the airport, that is where the real challenges begin. Staff must be trained on all aspects, including technology, and you must conduct dry runs before vaccine arrival.”