By Celestine Ajayi
The World Health Organisation (WHO) through COVAX facility and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) are expected to deliver close to 900 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in Africa by 2021.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, disclosed this at WHO first online press briefing for 2021 on Thursday from its regional office for Africa, based in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.
The director said WHO Regional Office for Africa through COVAX facility would deliver 600 million doses, while Africa CDC would secure 270 million doses of the vaccines.
COVAX is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. It aims at accelerating the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
The regional director said: “the COVAX facility, which is coordinated by GAVI, WHO and CEPI, aims to provide around 600 million doses for Africa in 2021.
“We expect the first doses to arrive by the end of March with large roll out by June.
“However, COVAX facility can only cover 20 per cent of Africa population so it is really wonderful to see the Africa Union efforts to secure provisional 270 million doses by the end of 2021 are achieving success.
“Togethe we will deliver 900 million doses this year and we know still more is needed,” Moeti said.
He said top priority for the Africa was to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccine, saying “it is unfortunate that so far, vaccine distribution has been inequitable but this a massive undertaking that will take time.”
According to her, as COVID-19 cumulative cases in Africa top three million and daily case numbers exceed the first wave peak, the continent is now confronted with emerging variants of the virus.
She said revamped public health measures were ever more critical to avert a runaway surge in infections that could stretch health facilities to the breaking point.
“An average of 25, 223 cases were reported each day between 28 December 2020 and 10 January 2021 in Africa, which is nearly 39 per cent higher than the July 2020 two-week peak of 18, 104 daily average cases.
“Yet numbers may rise further in the coming days in the wake of travelling, gathering and festivities over Christmas and New Year holidays.
“Overall cases in the region have risen steadily since mid-September 2020, with a steeper rise from late November.”
In addition, the regional director said a new variant of the virus called `501Y.V2’ was circulating widely in South Africa, accounting for most of the new infections during the second wave.
According to her, mutations of the virus are unsurprising as the more the pandemic spreads the higher the likelihood of changes.
“However, preliminary analysis finds the 501Y.V2 variation to be more transmissible. Genomic sequencing has found the variant present in Botswana, the Gambia and Zambia.
“Deeper investigations are underway to fully understand the epidemiological implications, but at present there are no indications the new variant increases the severity of the disease.
“Even if the new variant is not more virulent, a virus that can spread more easily will put further strain on hospitals and health workers, who are in many cases already overstretched,” continued Moeti.
She, however, said the development was a stark reminder that the virus was relentless, that it still presented a manifest threat, and that the war was far from won.
In addition, she said Nigeria was also carrying out more investigations on a variant identified in samples collected between August and October.
She added: “while for now there are no reports of the COVID-19 variant circulating in the United Kingdom cropping up in the African region, further investigation is needed.
“With WHO support, African countries are reinforcing genome sequencing efforts, which are key to finding and understanding new variants as they emerge and to help blunt their impact.
“WHO and the Africa network of genome sequencing laboratories in Africa is supporting governments with training and data analysis on genome sequencing, bioinformatics and technical expertise.”
The regional director said WHO had also developed guidance on containing new variants and was assisting countries to manage and safely transport samples for sequencing and analysis.
Moeti said while much progress was being made in building genome sequencing capacity, the more than 5,000 sequences which had been conducted so far in the region accounted for just two per cent of global sequencing data.
“We call on all countries to increase testing and sequencing of the virus to swiftly spot, track and tackle new COVID-19 variants as soon as they appear.
“To defeat an agile, adaptive and relentless enemy, we must know and understand its every move, and double down on what we know works best against all variants of the virus.
“We must not become complacent. We must persist with the proven public health measures that helped stop the spread of the virus during the first wave – that’s physical distancing, constant handwashing and wearing masks in public spaces,” she said.