From the lack of vaccines to the discovery of the Omicron variant, the continent is struggling to recalibrate its developmental trajectory
A gathering entitled “1st International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA)” took place during mid-December organized by the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC) based at the African Union (AU) headquarters located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the longstanding problems related to the lack of public health infrastructure on the continent of Africa and its resultant social consequences.
In late November of 2021, scientists in the Republic of South Africa detected the Omicron variant of coronavirus. South Africa has been on the frontline in the battle to contain the pandemic since the country has more confirmed cases than any other state on the continent.
Statistics from the final days of 2021, indicate that South Africa has detected 3.4 million COVID cases while more than 90,000 people have succumbed to the disease. The population of South Africa is rapidly approaching 60 million.
The overall number of coronavirus cases in Africa stands at 8.6 million with 222,000 deaths reported from the disease. These figures, like those in other geo-political regions of the world could very well be underestimated. The lack of testing, particularly in developing countries, could conceal the magnitude of the public health crisis on the continent and internationally.
In specific reference to South Africa, instead of being applauded for its scientific discovery, the western capitalist countries led by the United States, immediately imposed a travel ban on South Africa and seven of its neighbors. It was reported that the Omicron variant sample was taken from someone in Botswana which shares a border with South Africa. However, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Eswatini and Mozambique were included in the sweeping and apparently arbitrary measure.
The travel ban was issued during the holiday season when countries in Southern Africa rely on tourism to bolster their foreign exchange earnings. After announcing the ban due to the appearance of Omicron, the decision by the administration of President Joe Biden and other western leaders, came under intense criticism. Charges of racism and double standards came from a myriad of sources both within and outside the African continent. The ban was lifted in late December of 2021.
Omicron has been noted as substantially more transmissible than the dreaded Delta variant which has resulted in the hospitalizations and deaths of millions of people internationally. Since the advent of the pandemic in early 2020, there have been approximately 284 million known infections and more than 5.4 million deaths.
There are far more detected cases in the U.S. than any other country where 53.3 million infections and in excess of 820, 000 deaths have been devastating to the economic and social stability of the population. The presence of Omicron has only accelerated the number of infections prompting disruptions in the labor force, industrial supply chains, educational services, among other issues.
In Africa the economic impact has been substantial since in several of the most advanced states restrictions on gatherings, schooling and travel rendered millions idle. The decline in domestic and world trade has posed challenges to the AU member-states making the recent CPHIA summit quite timely.
The three-day conference was addressed by scientists, medical practitioners, businesspeople, government officials and social scientists. After the conclusion of the event, a statement was issued which read in part that: “Over 140 African policymakers, scientists, public health experts, data experts, and civil society representatives presented the latest learnings and research from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the actions needed to better guard against current and future health crises…. The opening ceremony was followed by a plenary discussion on the epidemiology of SARS-COV-2. This included a presentation by Prof. Salim Abdool Karim, Director of the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), who is among those leading research into the Omicron variant. Explaining the variant’s trajectory in South Africa, he emphasized the need to continue trusting and implementing strong public health interventions. ‘There is no need to panic. We’ve dealt with variants before, including those with immune escape. Closing borders has almost no benefit. Public health systems work, public interventions like masks and social distancing work. Let’s use them,’ said Prof. Karim. Other presenters featured included Prof. Penny Moore, Virologist, University of Witwatersrand, and Prof. Ibrahim Abubakar, Dean, Faculty of Population Health Sciences, University College London.” (https://africacdc.org/news-item/first-international-conference-on-public-health-in-africa-closes-with-urgent-call-for-a-new-public-health-order/)
Plans for Vaccine Manufacturing in Africa
There has been much discussion emanating from the African continent through the ACDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) on the question of vaccine inequality. Some have gone as far as to categorize the disparities as “vaccine apartheid.”
The fact that only 10% of eligible Africans living on the continent have been fully vaccinated illustrates clearly the international division of healthcare access. These grim statistics has drawn sharp comments as well from the Director Generals of both the ACDC, Dr. John Nkengasong, as well as Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the WHO. Both of these institutions find it unconscionable that western states are providing widespread availability to boosters, while most Africans have not had even one dose of the numerous vaccines available.
There are other medicines which are used to treat COVID that are not accessible to most people in Africa and other developing states. However, there are operations underway in Africa where coronavirus vaccines are being produced in partnership with international institutions.
Even prior to the advent of COVID-19 two years ago, the African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative (AVMI) was formed. Its mission is described on its website as being: “Looking beyond the provision of vaccines in emergency situations the AVMI will coordinate efforts of African vaccine manufacturers and other interested parties, who have a vision to see Africa produce its own vaccines and biologicals for both routine and emergency situations. Working with governments, regional bodies, NGO’s, the private sector, academic institutions, and relevant key opinion leaders AVMI aims to create, through partnerships, an environment on the African continent, which is conducive to the emergence, development and sustainability of vaccine and biological manufacturers that meet global quality standards.” (https://www.avmi-africa.org/about-us/who-we-are/)
In July it was announced that Pfizer and BioNTech would collaborate with South Africa’s Biovac Institute to “fill and finish” the production process of COVID-19 vaccines for shipment to other African states. According to Reuters: “The agreement comes as Pfizer and BioNTech try to sway World Trade Organization (WTO) members from supporting a waiver on some intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. It will make Biovac – a joint venture between the South African government and private sector partners – one of the few companies in Africa processing and distributing COVID-19 shots, and the first to do so using the mRNA technology.” (https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/pfizerbiontech-strike-south-africa-covid-19-manufacturing-deal-with-biovac-2021-07-21/)
Egypt is working in conjunction with the People’s Republic of China in its vaccine manufacturing and distribution project. China has developed its own coronavirus vaccines which are being shared with numerous African states. The process of manufacturing is essential in closing the gap between the continent and other geo-political regions.
Xinhua news agency in China says of the joint project with Egypt that: “The vaccines are being produced by Egyptian Holding Company for Biological Products and Vaccines (VACSERA) as per an agreement signed in April with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac. ‘Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in response to the global need of vaccines, we prepared ‘Factory 60’ inside one of the factories and production lines of VACSERA to produce COVID-19 vaccines in partnership with China’s Sinovac,’ said Egyptian Health Minister Hala Zayed in a recent tour inside VACSERA factory in Agouza district of Giza province near downtown Cairo. The minister pointed out that the Sinovac production line inside VACSERA factory in Agouza can meet the local needs of vaccines with a production capacity of 200 million doses annually.” (http://www.news.cn/english/africa/2021-09/07/c_1310173667.htm)
These joint operations related to COVID-19 vaccination production are being planned or are already underway in other states such as Senegal, Morocco and Algeria. Nonetheless, the demand for vaccines of all types along with adequate pharmaceutical and medical equipment require greater cooperation among African states in regard to the acquisition and manufacturing of these products. (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01048-1)
In the medium and long-terms, the manufacturing of healthcare necessities combined with scientific medical research will require the socialization of production. The last two years has revealed further that the 1.3 billion people on the continent cannot afford to wait for the charitable contributions of the West and other geo-political regions of the world.
Moreover, the democratization of healthcare resources on a global scale entails a protracted political struggle against world capitalism. Consequently, a united Africa will be in a much better position to acquire what is essential to effectively compete within international community.