Africa’s COVID-19 testing declines as deadly variants spread

• COVID-19 cases surpass 4.66m, 22.4m Africans vaccinated
• NPHCDA silent on date of next batch of AstraZeneca, seeks equitable access to vaccines
• Soldiers to vaccinate residents in volatile areas, says FG

About 38 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been acquired by the continent out of which 22.4 million doses have so far been administered, representing 1.8 per cent of the African population.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa has reached 4,660,304 as of Thursday, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said yesterday.

Africa CDC, the specialised healthcare agency of the 55-member African Union (AU), said the death toll from the pandemic stood at 125,404 while 4,219,117 patients across the continent have recovered from the disease. South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Egypt are among the countries with the most cases in the continent.

In terms of the number of cases, the southern Africa region is the most affected area, followed by northern Africa and eastern Africa regions, while Central Africa is the least affected region in the continent.

According to the Africa CDC, African countries have used close to 58.87 per cent of the vaccine supply available.

It said five member states – Morocco, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt and Kenya have administered the most doses of COVID-19 vaccines to their respective populations. Morocco comes first administering 10.13 million vaccines, with 11.9 per cent of the country’s population fully vaccinated. Nigeria comes second administering 1.67 million COVID-19 vaccines, with 0.82 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. Ethiopia is in third place administering 1.3 million vaccines, with 1.13 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.

The AU health agency, has however, urged countries to increase testing for coronavirus as more states report different variants of the disease. Testing dropped 21 per cent last week, John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an online briefing yesterday.x

South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Uganda and Kenya have reported the B.1.617 strain that is devastating India and which initial studies show spreads more easily. That’s in addition to the 24 African nations that reported cases of the B.1.1.7 mutation found last year in the UK, with the same number of countries reporting the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa.

“We need to increase our testing all the time to catch up with the pandemic,” said Nkengasong. “These viruses tend to be transmitted very quickly and move with people.”

Medical experts have warned that Nigeria and other countries in Africa could become the next India as vaccine supplies dwindle even as the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the delays in vaccine deliveries risk opening the door to a new wave of infections on the continent, and the emergence of new COVID-19 variants.

Nigeria has received about four million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine out of the 16 million doses she is expecting from COVAX, the vaccine-sharing initiative that provides free and discounted doses for lower-income countries. According to the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), the remaining doses are being expected in the not too distant future based on available information.

Additionally, the agency said Nigeria is expecting about 40 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from the African Union (AU) in a very short while from now. However, the agency refused to give specific dates when The Guardian inquired.

The WHO representative in Kenya, Rudi Eggers, told CNN: “The worst-case scenario is now happening. The East African nation will run out of its first batch of doses in days and there is no sign of a promised second shipment. Very clearly it worries me and very clearly the second doses won’t come in time. It really means that everybody who has been vaccinated until now will not get their second dose as planned,” Eggers said.

The COVAX consortium has publicly stated that the Indian vaccine squeeze will reduce deliveries, telling CNN that 40 million doses were affected in March and 50 million doses in April. But a senior humanitarian official familiar with COVAX planning said the situation could be much worse, saying that they hope deliveries will open up again in June.

People with one dose will already get some protection and delaying the second dose may not lessen the effectiveness of protection overall. The far bigger issues are the hundreds of millions on the continent with no vaccine protection at all.

India is the world’s largest producer of vaccines and the Serum Institute is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. Deals were done for the Serum Institute to manufacture at least 700 million initial doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for COVAX.

Executive Director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Faisal Shuaib, has however warned that for the world to eradicate coronavirus, there must be equitable access to the vaccines.

Speaking during a virtual meeting organised by the Africa CDC, the NPHCDA boss explained that due to the increasing uncertainty with the global COVID-19 vaccine supply, the Presidential Steering Committee made a strategic choice to utilize the current vaccine supply to administer double doses rather than single dose to ensure that every Nigerian who received the first dose gets the second dose to ensure full inoculation benefits.

Shuaib noted that with the current supply of about four million doses, Nigeria will inoculate roughly two million Nigerians rather than four million Nigerians with incomplete doses.

He said: “We have achieved almost 90 per cent vaccination, we divided the four million doses into two compartment, about two million Nigerians have gotten their first dose, we have started vaccinating people who have taken their first dose and have gone six weeks.”

Shuaib observed that the agency has mapped out strategies to ensure that the military supports the vaccination programme in security compromised areas, adding that in the first phase of the vaccination programme, the NPHCDA focused on health workers, first responders and frontline workers, including people that are 50 years and above.

He said: “What we are doing in Nigeria is learning from the success of the polio eradication programe, Nigeria was declared wild poliovirus free in 2020, one of the reasons for the delay in the Polio eradication programe was the insecurity in the Northeast that made it difficult for health workers to access some settlements and in some instances, it was difficult to reach large swaths of communities. In our planning for the security compromised areas, we engaged the military and we did not only go with polio vaccines, we went with additional health services like malaria treatment and nutritional interventions.”

Latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) released yesterday showed the highest numbers of new cases were reported from India, Brazil, the United States of America, Turkey and France.

Also, according to the WHO, for the second successive week, the number of COVID-19 cases globally remains at the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic with over 5.7 million new weekly cases, following nine consecutive weeks of increases. New deaths continue to increase for the seventh consecutive week, with over 93 000 deaths.

MEANWHILE, a virologist and Chairman, Expert Review Committee on COVID-19, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, yesterday, faulted United States’ support for waiver of intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines. Tomori told The Guardian: “As far as patent waiver is concerned, we are barking against a wrong horse. So what next with U.S. support for waiver? There are still many hurdles to clear, hopefully, by which time COVID-19 may have become routine.

“Apart from those countries in the emerging economy group, of which Nigeria is painfully not a member, who are already producing vaccines such as India, Indonesia, Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Senegal, and Thailand, which other country in Africa can produce vaccine if there is a waiver? And will the produced vaccine be cheaper and accepted? Is the waiver specifically for COVID-19 vaccine or covers future patents? So for us looking into the future, we have to waive our ineptitude and dependency and come up with our own patents instead of begging for carrying patent waiving placards every time there is a new disease.

“This is one reason, among others, why we must accelerate the National Research and Development Fund (NRDF) matter. Let us waive our poor performance instead of begging to waive the legitimate rights of other people’s hard earned patent!

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