COVID-19: Why Africa is key to stopping next variant — Report

NEWS DIGEST – Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine plant, the Aspen plant in South Africa, recently warned that it’s on the verge of closing due to a lack of orders. The timing is unfortunate: Nigeria has vaccinated only 7.5% of its population, and scientists are warning of an emerging fifth wave.

When the plant opened in late 2021 and signed a deal with Johnson & Johnson to produce their vaccine under the trade name Aspenovax, it was hailed as key to vaccine equity for Africa, not only for COVID-19 but also for other vaccines that it hopes to produce in the future. Aspenovax is a more forgiving vaccine in terms of cold chain requirements, making it better suited to Africa’s climate, but still needs to be stored under 25°C.

But excitement faded as time passed, and no orders were placed. The global north has already vaccinated the majority of its population, but it’s not like Africa already has all the doses it requires. It’s estimated that the continent needs another 1.095 billion doses to fully vaccinate 70% of its population.

Currently, just 16.9% of the continent’s population has completed the full initial vaccination protocol, compared with 73.6% in the EU, 66.4% in the US, and 59.5% in the world as a whole. The WHO set a target of 70% vaccination by 2022, but Africa isn’t expected to reach it until the end of 2024.

This lag raises the risk of a new variant emerging on the continent and swiftly catching hold, with terrible consequences for Africa and the entire world.

We can fix this – if we act fast

Most of the most vulnerable countries lie in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Burundi, where less than 1% of the population has completed the full initial vaccination protocol; the DRC, where only 1.1% are fully vaccinated; and Mali, Sudan, and Niger, where vaccination rates are all well under 10%.

These are the areas with the worst transportation networks, toughest terrain, and the poorest and most isolated populations, making them the people hardest to reach with vaccines, especially given the cold chain requirements involved. Many areas lack basic electricity and public health information, let alone subzero freezer facilities or temperature-controlled infrastructure.

But there’s a reason for confidence. There are initiatives underway to vaccinate these populations, and if non-profit organizations, the governments of richer countries, and philanthropic foundations act fast to support them, we can still save the world from a future COVID variant.

These initiatives include using tools like Logmore to improve condition monitoring for vaccine shipments, so as to assure health personnel and vaccine recipients that the doses were kept in the right conditions and are still safe to use. Meanwhile, COVAX and the US-led non-profit Global VAX are working together to connect the dots of improved cold chain provision, service delivery, and public confidence.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, Malawi, and Mozambique, companies like VillageReach are using drones to send vaccines on demand to hard-to-reach places. As well as overcoming issues of access, drone delivery on demand prevents healthcare workers from being overwhelmed with supply that they can’t use before expiry.

Additionally, work is ongoing to increase the share of vaccines sourced from local plants – namely Aspen. Local production helps decrease delivery times, raise the time until expiry, and simplify cold chain management. That’s why if the plant fails, it’s a sign that demand isn’t high enough and the rest of the world is too disinterested to keep it open, leaving no fallback plan for the next surge.

Time is running out to beat the next variant

Africa has experienced four waves, each more fatal than the last. South Africa alone, which has better data collection than some countries on the continent, has reported more than 3.8 million COVID cases and over 100,000 deaths, while Africa as a whole officially experienced over 12 million confirmed cases and 254,000 deaths.

However, those figures are certainly an underestimate, due to a lack of data.

Now scientists are warning that we could be seeing a fifth wave appearing in the region, as daily new cases in South Africa exceed 10,000 for the first time since January, when Omicron was first detected there.

Today it’s all about avoiding the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants, but newer mutations may soon emerge as well.

The only way out of covid is to vaccinate our way through

Omicron was a warning shot, reminding us that COVID isn’t finished, just when everyone was hoping for better times. Virologists explain that as long as there’s a significant population in the world that’s not immune, they serve as a reservoir for the virus to mutate, developing variations that are better at evading immunity, more transmissible, more fatal, or worse, all the above.

Natural immunity from prior infection fades faster than immunity from vaccines and is less consistently high, offering lower protection against future variants.

Omicron was more transmissible than previous variants, but also less fatal. We dodged a bullet, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to do so again, and epidemiologists predict that new variants will continually emerge. A catastrophic variant could arise at any time – unless we vaccinate.

Once that variant emerges, even those fully vaxxed and boostered elsewhere in the world are vulnerable. But if everyone was fully vaccinated within a short space of time, there would be far less opportunity for the virus to evolve into something that we can’t fight.

Zero COVID isn’t a solution

China and Hong Kong are still adhering to “zero COVID” policies, namely strict mass lockdown and testing whenever a case is discovered. Even setting aside the human misery this entails, it’s clear now that this approach is not viable.

China is facing a crisis that may spill over into serious rebellion, while Hong Kong saw its cumulative death toll soar from under 30 per million people in February 2022 to over 500 per million just one month later, when Omicron spread so fast that no containment method could keep up. Three-quarters of the country’s covid deaths took place within two weeks.

The WHO even criticized China’s zero COVID policy as not sustainable, which is a highly rare move on the organization’s part.

Vaccinating Africa means saving the world

It’s clear that the only way to prevent everyone from ongoing alarms over fearsome new variants is to make sure that everyone, everywhere is fully vaccinated, rather than just a partial rollout and isolated boosters.

Africa’s Aspen plant is the canary in the coal mine, and keeping it open, productive, and getting the shots into the arms of Africans will be key to stopping COVID-19 from taking over.

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