As Africa hits 2 million COVID cases, officials fear a vaccine will never reach its poor nations

Africa has surpassed 2 million confirmed coronavirus cases, with the continent’s top public health official warning that “we are inevitably edging toward a second wave” of infections.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the 54-nation continent had seen more than 48,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Its infections and deaths make up less than 4 per cent of the global total.

The African continent of 1.3 billion people is being warned against “prevention fatigue” as countries loosen pandemic restrictions to ease their economies’ suffering and more people travel.

“We cannot relent. If we relent, then all the sacrifices we put into efforts over the past 10 months will be wiped away,” Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told reporters.

He expressed concern that “many countries are not enforcing public health measures, including masking, which is extremely important”.

Fears richer countries could exclude Africa from a vaccine

Almost 50,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Africa, but officials worry that number could rise if restrictions are eased.(Reuters: Sumaya Hisham)

While the world takes hope from promising COVID-19 vaccines, African health officials also worry the continent will suffer as richer countries buy up supplies.

Dr Nkengasong warned that the Pfizer vaccine required storage at minus -70 degrees Celsius, and such a requirement “already creates an imbalance in the fair distribution or access to those vaccines” as richer countries will be better equipped to move quickly.

A storage network at -70C was put in place for West Africa’s devastating Ebola outbreak a few years ago, but that was localised, Dr Nkengasong said.

“If we were to deploy across the whole continent, it would be extremely challenging to scale it,” he said.

The Moderna vaccine requires storage at -20C, which Dr Nkengasong called promising.

But the price of any COVID-19 vaccine is another factor in their fair distribution, he said.

“So if a vaccine is $40 it becomes almost exclusive to parts of the world” that can afford it,” he said.

But he offered an optimistic early look at attitudes across Africa toward any COVID-19 vaccine.

Early data from a vaccine perception survey in 11 countries showed 81 per cent of respondents would accept a vaccine, he said.

“So that’s very, very encouraging news.”

Low testing numbers may hide extent of surge

A doctor wearing a white PPE suit helps a patient with a metal walker wearing a blue hospital gown.
A medical worker in Kenya attends to a coronavirus patient in the intensive care unit of an isolation centre.(AP: Brian Inganga)

Nearly 20 countries in Africa were seeing a more than 20 per cent increase in cases over the past four weeks, the World Health Organization said.

Kenya is the latest concern as it now sees a fresh surge in cases.

At least four doctors died on Saturday alone, leading a powerful health union in the country to threaten a nationwide strike starting next month.

“Absolutely no doubt you’ll see COVID spread into more rural areas [of Kenya and other countries],” Dr Nkengasong said, as more people move around.

The approaching holidays and inter-generational gatherings bring the risk of super-spreader events and new virus clusters in yet-untouched areas, WHO said.

The African continent has conducted 20 million coronavirus tests since the pandemic began, but shortages mean the true number of infections is unknown.


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Sam Bell

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