African governments must take urgent steps to prepare for distribution of coronavirus vaccines, the continent’s health watchdog said on Thursday, after the African Union announced it had secured 270 million doses.
“We cannot wait. This is not a polio or measles vaccination. We have to do it quick. Our economies are down, our people are dying,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), told a press conference.
“There’s absolutely no reason for accelerated preparations not to occur,” he added.
The African Union (AU) deal announced on Wednesday is intended to benefit countries unable to finance their own immunisation campaigns.
Governments will be able to make financing arrangements through the African Export-Import Bank that could allow for instalment payments over a five-year period.
The doses – to be supplied by Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – will complement vaccines secured via Covax, the globally-pooled vaccine procurement and distribution effort.
At least 50 million doses secured under the AU deal are expected to be available from April through June.
But Nkengasong said member states needed to act fast to organise storage sites in major cities, train health workers, secure supplies like needles and create effective systems to record who has received doses.
He said governments would be able to start ordering vaccines through an AU platform in the coming days.
Africa has recorded around 3.1 million Covid-19 cases, or 3.5% of the global total, and around 75 000 deaths, or 2.4% of the global total, according to Africa CDC data.
But there has been an average weekly increase in cases of 18% over the past month, with significant rises in southern and western Africa in particular.
Roughly 30 000 new cases are being recorded across Africa each day, compared to 18 000 during the continent’s first wave last year, Nkengasong said.
Potentially fuelling the spread are new virus strains, including one dubbed 501Y.V2 which emerged in South Africa.
The Africa director of the World Health Organisation, Matshidiso Moeti, said that “being confronted with new variants of the virus is not surprising, however some of these changes are concerning.”
The 501Y.V2 variant, which recent studies have indicated could be more transmissible, has also been detected in Botswana, The Gambia and Zambia.
“And quite frankly, we believe it could be present in more countries than that,” Moeti told an online press briefing on Thursday.
Twelve laboratories collaborating across the continent have already sequenced 5,000 samples of the virus, an important undertaking to detect potential new strains, and how dangerous and quickly they spread.
Another variant has been detected in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 200 million people.
But more research is needed to “identify if it is in association with any changes in circulation or mortality rate of the virus,” said Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.
The Africa CDC has set a target of vaccinating 60% of Africans against Covid-19 in 2021 and 2022.