The United States is ramping up its vaccine support for Africa, including an announcement on Thursday of $250 million to assist 11 sub-Saharan African countries with access to doses, distribution, vaccine campaigns and rollout, and access to other resources and supplies to help get doses into arms.

The overall aim of this extra support is to make sure that when doses are donated, they reach citizens as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

The countries that will see this boost in support include Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Eswatini, Ghana, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. 

The surge in support for African nations is an effort to help the World Health Organization (WHO) reach the goal of vaccinating 70% of the world by mid-2022. In December 2021, the Biden administration set up the Global VAX Initiative to help boost efforts towards reaching this goal, and to fulfill President Biden’s vows to end the pandemic. 

To date, the US has donated over 420 million vaccines to nations in need — with its ultimate commitment to donate 1.2 billion doses to over 100 countries by the end of this year — making it the biggest vaccine sharing country globally. 

According to the Washington Post, the Global VAX Initiative’s plans include a $510 million investment to ramp up support for the 11 countries, and alongside vaccines, this could go towards investments in cold chain storage, mobile centers for administering doses, as well as other necessary supplies. 

That the US considers these additional resources as part of their vaccine donations — beyond just sharing doses themselves — is important for true vaccine equity. The Africa CDC, the WHO, and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust had to make a statement in December 2021, calling on donating countries to make mindful donations, and to consider the effort and resources that it takes for African nations to plan vaccine rollout campaigns.

The statement from the agencies was a response to too many last-minute vaccine donations that left African countries with the need to scramble to roll out doses before they expired, or that led to doses having to be thrown away — despite the urgent need for them. Their statement also called for vaccine supplies such as syringes, cotton wool, and masks, to be shipped along with donated doses. 

With its commitment, the Global VAX Initiative’s main aim is to ensure “shots in arms”, a growing global health focus for this year in response to the concern that many low-income countries don't have the amenities and infrastructure to store and roll out doses donated by wealthy nations. 

The Washington Post reports that the Global VAX Initiative will also be sharing funds to assist dozens of other countries outside of those listed, in an effort to “ramp up” their vaccination efforts in this same way. 

Jeremy Konyndyk, executive director of the USAID COVID Task Force, told the Washington Post: “What we found very consistently in our outreach is that countries do want doses, they do want to vaccinate, and when they have gotten the resources to do that, they’ve made good progress.”

Over the past few months Global VAX has been working with three sub-Saharan African countries — Côte d'Ivoire, Uganda, and Zambia — to effectively scope out and support need. The initiative found that concentrated efforts to support vaccine campaigns and rollouts, above simply donating doses, resulted in a steady increase of vaccine uptake. Uganda, particularly, saw a 33% increase in eligible citizens receiving their first doses in just 6 weeks of the initiative’s support. 

The initiative this month released a statement detailing its work with the three countries in recent months, as case studies for how to help drive up vaccination rates. 

“Even as US-donated vaccine supplies continue to increase to meet demand, many countries face significant challenges in turning vaccines in vials into shots in arms,” the statement read. “Some don’t have enough ultra-cold chain freezers to stop doses from spoiling, others have large rural populations living miles from the nearest health facilities, and many struggle to combat widespread misinformation and increase vaccine confidence.”

The work the initiative has done with the three countries has included helping them prepare for an influx of vaccines, assisting in creating campaigns to tackle misinformation, and boosting support for existing health systems. 

The successful results from the last few months have helped to propel efforts to support more sub-Saharan African countries. There has been no comment yet on whether these efforts and investments can be sustained beyond current need.

Currently just 17% of Africa’s 1.3 billion population have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, in comparison to wealthier nations — with countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France having inoculated over 70% of their populations, and Canada sitting above 80% — that have been successfully administering booster shots since the end of 2021, and talks of administering a fourth shot for adults now creating a buzz in public health conversations. 


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The US Is 'Surging' Vaccine Support to 11 African Countries. What Does That Mean?

By Khanyi Mlaba