COVID-19 vaccine: Africa begins its vaccination journey

March 5, 2021 marked the one-year anniversary of South Africa’s very first confirmed CoVID-19 case. The country, the continent, and the world has since changed and suffered tremendous loss. The world’s scientists and greatest medical minds came together to finally find a solution to what the World Health Organization refers to as “the most challenging crisis we have ever faced.” Africa now has begun the great task of rolling out CoVID-19 vaccines throughout its nations and it is making great strides in doing so.

Prevention is indeed better than cure. This was a hard lesson that the world was forced to live by in order to survive a pandemic. Following the advice put forward by global health organizations and governments, a number of interventions were put in place to protect us from the unknown. A disease which spread so rapidly and changed so quickly that it was declared a once-in-a-lifetime threat to humanity. Stay at home. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Above all else, distance yourselves socially. This is how we were to protect ourselves against CoVID-19. As the virus spread across the continent, all we could do was rely on prevention. South Africa quickly responded with rules and regulations that received global recognition for exemplary reaction. But as March draws to a close, we have another weapon in our arsenal of anti-COVID armour.

The month of March will forever be marked as the beginning of our greatest defence against CoVID-19. The very first doses of the CoVID-19 vaccines, under the COVAX initiative, were administered in Africa on March 1st, 2021. The governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana began the CoVID-19 vaccination efforts by focusing on the country’s most essential worker – the healthcare worker.  Ghana took delivery of 600 000 doses on February 24 and Côte d’Ivoire took 504 000 doses two days later. Both countries received the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine licensed and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. The vaccine, branded COVISHIELD, was granted Emergency Use Listing by the World Health Organization on February 15. This was only the beginning for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) vaccine rollout plan with COVAX across the continent. It plans to deliver about 90 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in this month alone and a total of 600 million doses by the end of this year. This will cover 20% of the regions’ most at risk of CoVID-19 but more doses will have to be procured through other bilateral agreements with producers. This is a monumental event for Africa and its people because this is the largest mass vaccination campaign in history.

Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire join ten other countries in Africa which have recently kicked off vaccine rollouts to some extent. On March 3, six other participating African countries signed up to receive their first delivery and shipments are due to arrive during the month of March. 40 African countries have been preparing since November of last year to prepare for vaccine deliveries. These 40 countries have detailed national deployment plans which will be launched into action as the year progresses. This is according to the Coordinator of Immunisation and Vaccine Development Programme at the WHO Regional office for Africa, Dr Richard Mihigo, who spoke at Africa’s Webinar on COVID-19 hosted by South Africa’s Government Communication and Information System on March 3.

The good news is that the vaccine rollout has proven itself, across the world, as an effective means to reduce cases of severe illness, hospitalization and death. As long as more of us are vaccinated, more lives will be saved. The continent needs billions of doses to be administered in order to vaccinate 60-70% of the population. This will ultimately bring us closer to the goal of some degree of herd immunity. We are only at the beginning of continent-wide vaccination but we’ve come so far from just a year ago. We are finally getting a clearer picture of what life could be after-CoVID 19 when it all seemed so unimaginable before. To finally arrive at this point, entire populations need to be immunized and I am optimistic that the continent, and South Africa, are  well on their way to achieving this.

Here, closer to home, in South Africa, we lost over 50 000 lives to Covid-19 this past year. It is in remembrance of all the precious lives lost that we celebrate the arrival of our very own vaccine doses. Over 100 000 doses have been administered to our healthcare workers and counting. New batches of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are expected to arrive in the coming months and the number of those immunized will continue to grow. A total of 11 million doses have been secured for delivery to South Africa. 2.8 million of those vaccine doses will be delivered in the second quarter and the rest will be delivered throughout the year. Another 20 million does from Pfizer are also expected for delivery in the second quarter. The country’s participation in WHO’s COVAX facility initiative (mentioned previously) also means that have 12 million vaccine doses are on the way.

All nine of South Africa’s provinces have newly established vaccination sites put in place. This is the dedicated investment government has made to ensure that every corner of the country has an equal chance at life. From the beginning of March, government announced that the number of vaccination sites will be increased from 17 to 49 country-wide. 32 will be at public hospitals and 17 vaccination sites will be placed in private hospitals. President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised that this will include many rural areas of South Africa to improve access to rural healthcare workers. South Africa has steadfastly applied itself to the rapid and equitable administering of the vaccine. Everyone MUST have access because everyone MUST be vaccinated for us to succeed. The plan is to complete the goal of protecting our healthcare workers first. Once we’ve succeeded with this phase, government will begin with what it called “Phase two” of the vaccine rollout in April/May. The elderly, essential workers, persons living or working in institutional settings and those at higher risk due to co-morbidities will be vaccinated.

Now, we know that Africa and its nations have taken every step necessary to give us access to the vaccine. It is up to us, as citizens of African nations, to participate, educate and vaccinate. There is a lot of misinformation which mongers fear and doubt amongst our communities. It seems that those unwilling to vaccinate are those who have not been assured of the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey at the end of last year and found that the majority of African respondents would take the vaccine if it was deemed safe. 79% of over than 15 000 adults, aged 18 years and above, across 15 African countries (Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia, and Uganda) voted in favour of taking a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

The new challenge is making sure that we are all confident in the vaccine’s effectiveness. The only way to counter this is to communicate and actively use research to spread the right information.  Let’s participate in how this country and the continent activates vaccine campaigns by sharing information from legitimate sources. We should then educate ourselves and others on why, where and how this vaccine will be administered. Once we’re all on the same page, let’s encourage vaccinating and vaccinate ourselves. It sounds like immense responsibility but then again, so is our continuing fight against CoVID-19. Let us play our part in advancing this nation’s right to health and let us not waver. Now that the vaccine is in our hands, we still have a mountain to climb but we’ll start today, one step at a time.