Editor’s note: This piece was updated on Feb. 3, 2021, to include the higher number of vaccine doses now secured.
The African Union has secured 1 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for the continent, amid concerns over vaccine equity and nationalism worldwide.
The vaccine doses were secured thanks to the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) — which was established by Chair of the African Union (AU) President Cyril Ramaphosa in the latter half of 2020. This figure is an increase from the 270 million doses the AU originally acquired in mid-January.
In his final week serving as AU Chair, Ramaphosa confirmed the acquisition of these vaccines and explained how the AVATT had come to acquire them.
He said: “700 million of these will come from the global COVAX Facility, and 300 million have been facilitated by the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team.”
He also explained that the continent would be receiving donations from the private sector in order to purchase more vaccines.
His announcement came as the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in South Africa on Feb. 1. Deputy President David Mabuza and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize stood alongside President Ramaphosa at OR Tambo International Airport to receive the consignment.
The South African public also turned out to witness the historic moment from a viewing deck at the airport as the precious cargo was offloaded. This first batch of vaccines will be designated to health care workers, as South Africa aims to vaccinate its 1.2 million health care workers as a priority over members of the public.
Registration to receive the jabs has already begun, with 34,000 health care workers already signed up on the government’s online registration portal.
Dr. Nicaise Ndembi, senior science adviser for the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) , said that the vaccines acquired by the African Union will be allocated on the continental platform set up in 2020, in order to make it easier for all 54 African countries to pool their purchasing power and purchase in bulk.
Dr. Ndembi also confirmed that AU officials have approached at least 10 vaccine manufacturers and developers, working towards a goal of vaccinating 60% of Africa’s population — or 780 million people — by 2022.
As “vaccine nationalism” has seen richer countries acquire more than enough vaccine doses for their respective populations, Africa is still playing catch up.
But the target of vaccinating 60% of people in Africa — although meaning a large number of people still won’t have been vaccinated — is estimated by researchers to mean that the spread of the disease would be slowed significantly.
Leaders and officials continue to explore several ways in which to acquire the vaccine for all 54 countries. A collaborative effort between the continent’s officials, industry leaders, donating nations, and humanitarian organisations has been, and continues to be, crucial in Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.
This collaborative effort has so far resulted in a few ways to make sure the vaccine reaches Africa’s shores. Here’s what you need to know about how COVID-19 vaccine doses will reach Africa, and who’s behind the vaccination effort.
The COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, or COVAX Facility, was established by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in April 2020 along with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organisation.
It forms part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which was launched by the WHO and other global partners to accelerate the global effort to identify and distribute innovative COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines to ensure that no country is left behind.
The coordinators of COVAX realised early on that poorer countries would face serious challenges in the effort to vaccinate their populations, which could result in prolonging the existence of COVID-19 and its socio-economic impacts.
It aims to secure and deliver at least 2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of this year, and ensure equal access to the vaccine for 92 low- and middle-income countries around the world that cannot afford to vaccinate their populations on their own.
Africa is expecting 700 million doses from COVAX, according to Ramaphosa, which would be enough to vaccinate more than 20% of the continent’s population. COVAX will be distributing these vaccines through the AVATT, which negotiated for the 700 million vaccines — an increase from the 600 million that Africa was reportedly expecting.
Africa is expecting 600 million doses from COVAX, according to Dr. Ndembi, which would be enough to vaccinate 20% of the continent’s population. Officials in Africa are, however, reportedly still waiting on the details of when and how to expect these doses of the vaccine.
Global Citizens played an important role in making sure that these vaccines will be available for African countries and other vulnerable nations around the world, thanks to last year’s Global Goal: Unite for Our Future campaign — which mobilised over $1.5 billion in cash grants and $5.4 billion in loans and guarantees, for a total of $6.9 billion pledged for COVID-19 relief. Contributions from the campaign resulted in a total of $389 million pledged in support of the ACT Accelerator.
The African Vaccination Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) is a group of 10 members from across the continent whose main goal is to acquire enough vaccines to achieve herd immunity by 2022.
The 1 billion doses already acquired by AVATT will come from four major suppliers: the COVAX Facility, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson.
The Johnson and & Johnson vaccine is set to be produced in South Africa while the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines will be supplied through an independent licence from the Serum Institute of India — the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and major contributor to COVAX as well.
It is important to note that AVATT’s efforts only serve to complement COVAX rather than contest it, as the vaccines that are planned to be supplied through COVAX, while significant, will not be enough to vaccinate the entire African population.
Although none of these vaccines have been approved by any of the continent’s drug regulators, with Johnson & Johnson being the only producer so far to apply for vaccine registration in South Africa, the roll out of these jabs is set to begin at the end of the first quarter of this year.
Private company donations
According to Ramaphosa’s most recent national address, on Feb. 1, vaccines for the continent will also be acquired through a number of private company donations across Africa.
One such donation will come from South African telecommunications company MTN, which has a large presence across the continent. MTN has donated $25 million for the purchase of 7 million vaccines which Ramaphosa explained will be distributed across the continent in a matter of weeks.
He did not name any other donating companies in his address.
While a large part of the continent will depend solely on vaccines acquired through COVAX and AVATT, some countries have gone about their own negotiations with manufacturers to help secure the vaccine for their people.
The Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles became the first African country to begin to vaccinate its population at the start of January 2021. The country is using the Chinese vaccine developed by the Chinese pharma giant Sinopharm with its subsidiary the China National Biotec Group.
South Africa is set to begin its vaccine rollout later this month, as the country received 1 million doses of the vaccine at the beginning of February from an independent contract with AstraZeneca. These jabs will be in addition to doses being provided through COVAX and AVATT efforts.
In a national address, South Africa’s Ramaphosa announced that the government has been negotiating directly with several vaccine manufacturers for over six months to secure enough vaccines for the country.
“While there are several promising negotiations with a number of different manufacturers that still need to be concluded, we have to date secured 20 million doses to be delivered mainly in the first half of the year,” Ramaphosa said.
Other countries who have struck independent deals with vaccine manufacturers include Mauritius, Tunisia, and Egypt.