The World Health Organization (WHO) has commended South Africa for rapidly detecting, sequencing, and reporting the new variant of the novel coronavirus. But, is concerned that vaccine inequity throughout Africa, might lead to the COVID-19 virus spreading and mutating.

WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this spread and mutation could have devastating effects.

As long as vaccine inequity persists, the more opportunity the virus has to spread and mutate in ways no one can prevent or predict. This is why we have Omicron. I thank South Africa and Botswana for rapidly detecting, sequencing, and reporting this new variant. It is deeply disappointing to me that some countries continue to block direct flights from Southern Africa,” said Ghebreyesus.

Vaccine manufacturing in Africa

He spoke during Monday’s Africa CDC Stakeholder engagement meeting, which took place virtually in Kigali, Rwanda. The topic focused on the progress made in implementing partnerships for vaccine manufacturing in Africa.

According to WHO, preliminary evidence suggests that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, as compared to other variants of concern, but the information is limited.

Ghebreyesus is worried that low-income countries, especially in Africa, do not have enough COVID-19 vaccines to vaccinate their populations.

Low-income countries way behind

“Some countries have managed to vaccinate most of their populations and are well on their way to widespread coverage with boosters. But in April, most of the world’s countries did not have anywhere near enough vaccines to cover all health workers, never mind the rest of their populations. More than 80% of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries. Low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0,6% of all vaccines,” said Ghebreyesus.

“WHO has called on all countries to do everything they can to achieve WHO’s global target to vaccinate 40% of their populations by the end of this year, and 70% by the middle of next year. More than 100 countries have still not reached the 40% target and more than half of those, mostly in Africa, are at risk of missing it by the end of the year. Mainly because they cannot access the vaccines they need.” 

Regional vaccine production ‘crucial’

Ghebreyesus also highlighted the importance of widespread regional vaccine production.

“The persistent inequity in access to vaccines and the emergence of the Omicron variant show why the world needs more widespread regional base vaccine production. Plus intellectual property reform to share vital global health public goods, technology transfer, sharing of know-how and training,” said Ghebreyesus.

“Egypt, Morocco, Rwanda, and Senegal have all signed agreements or memorandums of understanding for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing in their countries, and Algeria has begun production. WHO and partners have established an MRA technology transfer hub in SA to boost vaccine production on the continent,” he added.

‘Future disease outbreaks can be curbed’

Ghebreyesus further stated that local production of vaccines can be critical in fighting disease outbreaks and pandemics in the future.

“Even before the pandemic, we knew that strengthening local production in Africa would be an essential part of our continent’s journey towards universal health coverage,” said Ghebreyesus.

“There will always be outbreaks and pandemics – that is why local production of vaccines is so critical. WHO remains committed to working with the African Union, its member states, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Africa Medicines Agency to support the development of domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity.” 

Africa CDC Director, John Nkengasong, said only 7% of the African population has been fully vaccinated.

“One can only imagine how long it will take to get from 7% to 70% as a continent. Dr Ghebreyesus has told us about the new variant. The consequences of a lack of such scale vaccinations are leading us to the emergence of new variants,” said Nkengasong. -Health-e News.