Saturday, June 19, 2021

African alarm grows as India’s crisis halts Covid-19 vaccine exports

African countries are relying on India for vaccine supplies but now India needs all it produces.

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Africa is “watching with total disbelief” as India struggles with its devastating resurgence in Covid-19 cases, the continent’s top public health official said on Thursday.

African officials are worrying that the surge is jeopardising vaccine deliveries from India, and risking a similar surge in Africa, the Associated Press is reporting.

The African continent, with roughly the same population as India and fragile health systems, “must be very, very prepared” for a similar scenario, John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.

“What is happening in India cannot be ignored by our continent,” he said, and urged African countries to avoid mass gatherings including political rallies. “We do not have enough healthcare workers, we do not have enough oxygen,” he warned.

Africa’s vaccine supply heavily relies on India, whose Serum Institute is the source of the AstraZeneca vaccines distributed by the global Covax project.

“India’s export ban on vaccines has severely impacted the predictability of the rollout of African vaccination programmes,” Nkengasong said.

Just 17 million vaccine doses have been administered across the whole African continent with a population of some 1.3 billion.

Phionah Atuhebwe of the World Health Organization (WHO) said most African nations that received their first vaccine doses via Covax will reach a “gap” in supply while waiting for second doses as early as May or June.

“We call upon countries that have extra doses to do their part,” she said, adding that WHO is reviewing the Chinese-made Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines this week.

Nkengasong said Congo wants to donate some 1.3 million doses so they can be distributed to other African nations since it hasn’t been able to administer them at home because of vaccine hesitancy.

There is a five-week deadline to get the doses administered, he said, and Congo is working with Covax to hand them over. He expressed hope that the doses can reach other people quickly.

Nkengasong urged other countries not to wait until the last moment to hand their unused jabs back. Other countries in Europe, North America and Asia “can have their luxury” of vaccine options, he said, but “we do not have choices”.

Only 43 million tests for the virus have been conducted across the whole African continent since the pandemic began, the Africa CDC chief said, with a 26% drop in new tests conducted in the past week.

However, he warned against travel bans after Kenya this week announced it will suspend all passenger flights to and from India for two weeks starting on Saturday, while cargo flights continue.

“It’s really unfortunate we are reacting in a very ad hoc manner in respect to flight movements,” he said, emphasising the strength of authentic negative PCR tests. “It’s not people who are a threat, it’s the virus.”

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