Africa is still lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and South African actress Charlize Theron has weighed in on the situation, calling for vaccines to be distributed fairly.
Through her foundation, the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, Theron has teamed up with social justice organization, the Ford Foundation, to drive the message of the importance of vaccine equity, and to call for vaccines for Africa.
She sat down with BBC Africa to spell out why everyone, everywhere needs access to a COVID-19 vaccine, and how to potentially make that a reality.
“We have to start looking at other ways to get enough vaccines to the market, and also into people’s arms,” she told the BBC. “And I think that an emergency waiver on patents could really relieve a lot of that.”
Currently Africa produces just 1% of its own vaccines, and is heavily reliant on imports, including for COVID-19 vaccines. Plans to establish more vaccine manufacturing capacity on the continent are underway, including through the newly established mRNA technology transfer hub, based in South Africa.
The Africa CDC has also kickstarted a strategy to establish five new vaccine sites across the continent, towards reaching a target of producing 60% of Africa’s vaccine needs at home by 2040. Countries such as Kenya have announced plans to start producing their own vaccines as well.
While these efforts will take time, global pharmaceutical leaders have been reluctant to share their knowledge and technology with local African producers to help expand access to COVID-19 vaccines now, when they’re needed most.
Speaking to the BBC, Theron explained how unlocking the intellectual property around vaccines can make a huge difference in fighting the pandemic.
“If we can get countries like South Africa, and Brazil, and India to actually manufacture for their region, we’ll see a real uptake in how many vaccines we can actually bring to people,” she said.
While vaccine distribution across the continent has picked up slightly, many African countries have not yet been able to reach targets set out for them by the World Health Organization to inoculate at least 10% of adults in their populations. As of the beginning of October, only 15 of 54 countries had reached that goal.
The continent, which has been dependent on COVAX, the global vaccine sharing facility, for vaccines, has faced several challenges in securing doses. COVAX itself has had to cut its distribution target, having already reduced its target from 700 million vaccines for Africa by the end of 2021, to 520 million, and more recently confirming that it will fall short of 100 million doses of that already reduced target.
To compensate, the African Union has ordered vaccines through direct deals with pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson.
The most recent acquisition news came on Oct. 26, when the African Union announced that it plans to purchase 110 million vaccines from Moderna through a deal brokered by the United States government. Moderna has previously been called out for not contributing enough to vaccine equity efforts — with 97% of the company's distributed doses to date going to wealthy countries. Not to mention, Moderna has the most expensive jab in the business, making them inaccessible for lower-income countries to purchase.
The AU has further called on vaccine-producing countries to follow in the United States’ footsteps and leverage their access to these pharmaceutical companies in order to help boost access for lower-income nations.
In her BBC Africa interview, Theron also spoke about the unfairness of administering booster shots in some countries — saying that the world needs to seriously consider what dishing out boosters in wealthy nations means when an entire continent has vaccinated less than 5% of its population.
“I do think we are asking people to maybe think beyond themselves, right?” said Theron. “What is enough in countries like America and the UK? Do we need this extra jab? Or is it smarter for us to maybe reach out to countries and get more people on that first vaccine?”
She added: “And maybe start the process of what the World Health Organization is aiming to do, with getting 70% of all adults in countries vaccinated by 2022 — that’s not going to happen unless we start sharing some of these vaccines.”