Vaccines for COVID-19 are generating a lot of talks nowadays. This should not be surprising given how COVID-19 disease has led to the loss of thousands of lives and impacted livelihoods worldwide. There are on-going debates over the equity in their distributions and accessibility. Still, vaccines are among the most successful and cost-effective health investments in history with benefits across a lifetime.
At the time of writing, the race towards the development of COVID-19 vaccines has revealed more than 201 pre-clinical trials in labs and animals. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) urges global actors to speed up the COVID-19 vaccination access in Africa, the continent has already reported 3,365,095 cases and 82,891 virus-related cases. Thanks to unprecedented human investments and innovations more than 200 COVID-19 vaccines are in development worldwide, with governments securing deals to access advanced doses.
There are so far three promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The first of all is Pfizer and the German biotechnology company BioNTech. Together, they have developed one of the candidate vaccines, BNT162b2, with 95 percent effectiveness in protection against COVID-19 symptoms. Likewise, a Massachusetts-based company Moderna released data on its candidate vaccine, mRNA-1273, developed with assistance from the US government. Moderna’s 95 per cent effectiveness results are considered interim, with the final results expected any day. The last candidate is AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company collaborating with Oxford University. Their COVID-19 vaccine AZD1222 has shown 90 per cent effectiveness. Other companies are also engaged in producing COVID-19 vaccines, including Gamaleya’s Sputnik V vaccine in Russia, Sinopharm and CanSino in China, Serum institute in India, and many more others.
COVID-19 vaccines distribution is currently underway worldwide. It will take months if not years for everyone to get vaccinated. That’s why WHO is urging African countries to ramp up readiness for the vaccination drive. All 47 countries in the WHO African region, including Tanzania, have received the WHO’s vaccine readiness assessment tool to be used by health ministries in respective countries to determine the vaccination roadmap. According to a WHO’s analysis of 40 African countries, the region has an average score of 33 per cent readiness for a COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, which is well below the desired benchmark of 80 per cent. This challenge notwithstanding some African countries has made arrangements to secure COVID-19 vaccines for their people. South African as the wealthiest country in Africa has so far secured about 20 million doses, due to be delivered in the first half of 2021. According to WHO, many African countries will not be capable of financing themselves to access COVID-19 vaccines.
Tanzania in vaccination limbo
Tanzania reported its first coronavirus case on March 16, 2020. While the government took some measures to contain the spread of the deadly virus, like banning mass public crowds and closing of schools it did not go as far as imposing strict measures adopted by other governments like locking down cities and towns. While people were going with their daily activities — like attending churches or mosques — they also took some measures to stay protected like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. During this time, the government was carrying out testing and provided updates on the status of COVID-19 in the country. His emblematic style of combating the virus notwithstanding President Magufuli was right on allowing primary economic activities to continue for the development of Tanzania. Later on, however, President John Magufuli questioned the efficacy of testing after sending various animals and fruits to the labs for COVID-19 testing, and they tested positive. The lab was ordered to close down pending an investigation, no more testings were carried out, Tanzania stopped giving updates on COVID-19 situation in the country, three days of national prayer was announced, and Tanzania was later declared coronavirus-free.
Because Tanzania stopped publishing the number of its coronavirus cases, it will be difficult to verify how well the government’s approach to dealing with the pandemic has worked. But according to the CDC in Africa, Tanzania is rated on the “Level 4” of the COVID-19 travel health notices. This means that 100 in among 100,000 Tanzanian travelers have contracted the COVID-19 pandemic disease. It was against this background that the UK, alongside other countries such as the US, banned all arrivals from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to stop all avoidable spread of COVID-19.
As the race for COVID-19 vaccines intensifies day after day, Tanzanian authorities remain deadly silent on whether they will try to access them or not. The minister responsible for health Dr Dorothy Gwajima has said the government would issue an official statement on its stand regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. Still, nothing has been said as of the time of writing. However, the government is on record of urging its citizens to use local herbs and other traditional medicine rather than investing in the COVID-19 vaccinology. It is not yet clear if this is the final government stance on dealing with COVID-19. Be that as it may, the government’s response to COVID-19 has placed Tanzanians in a vaccination limbo. The situation becomes even more alarming when we consider the ministry of health’s decision to order the country-based scientists to do research and undergo clinical trials for the local herbs against the coronavirus.
Equity in accessing Covid-19 vaccines
African countries should remain engaged and involved in the eventual COVID-19 vaccine rollout, considering that most of its countries lack facilities and technology for producing them. Several vaccines that were already developed by different countries seek approval from WHO. Still, there is already a stiff competition among developed countries for the vaccines, which puts the low- and middle-income countries in the danger of lacking access to the vaccines. In the words of WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million; not 25,000; just 25.”
The hoarding of vaccines by wealthy countries is among the challenges that have slowed the process of rolling out the vaccines in most developing African countries. All this calls for equity which is inextricably essential if we mean to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The leading producers of COVID-19 vaccines must stop prioritising profit-maximisation. Suppose there will be an inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines between the rich and developing countries. In that case, the collective efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic disease will miserably fail, and more lives will be impacted.
That’s why the WHO drive of establishing COVAX to guarantee an equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines is welcome. As a part of WHO, COVAX pools its funds from several States and other non-Sates actors to buy and distribute vaccines. COVAX is planning to distribute a billion doses of coronavirus vaccines to low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2021. We hope that African countries will benefit from this and it is upon African countries — including Tanzania — to make sure that they’re not left behind. In the words of Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa: “The largest immunisation drive in Africa’s history is right around the corner, and African governments must urgently ramp up readiness.”
Jerry Mosses is a Research Assistant at the University of Dar es Salaam. He is also a post-graduate student for a Master’s Degree in Development Studies. He can be reached through his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @jerrysonmosses. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Would you like to publish in this space? Contact our editor at email@example.com for further inquiries.