By Sandra Onindo

Africa is planning its transition from groundwork to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. The rapid vaccine rollout is anticipated, following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) listing of two AstraZeneca vaccine versions meant for emergency use.

At an African Health Ministers meeting held on 17 February by WHO, it was decided by an independent regional review committee that 35 lower income African countries will be the recipients of free vaccines from COVAX.  A global initiative would also guarantee fair supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

Similarly, the committee pointed out the need for more work on establishing systems to be responsible for financing national vaccination campaigns. The others are the supply of the vaccines, reaching migrants, refugees and internally displaced people.

The move to roll out vaccines follows evidence of new forms of the virus spreading the pandemic faster across the continent in the second wave than in the first. Variant 501Y.V2, also known as B1.351 was first identified in South Africa and has been detected in eight more African countries including Botswana, Ghana, Comoros, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Cases of Variant VOC202012/01, also known as B1.1.7 were first recorded in the United Kingdom (UK) and have spread to six African nations. These are; Gambia, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.  As a result of these, African countries have been urged to use the AstraZeneca vaccine even with the existence of new SARS-CoV-2 strains.

Although a small South African study found the vaccine to be ineffective against mild and moderate cases of the 501Y.V2 variant.  Strategic Advisory Group of Experts at WHO deduced that the ongoing research reveals AstraZeneca vaccine is likely to offer protection against severe COVID-19. However, conclusions cannot be made yet, as post-implementation assessments are still required.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, updated Health Ministers on the continent’s overall state of preparedness for its forth coming largest vaccination drive.  These include delivery dates for the vaccines, the subsequent steps, indemnity and liability agreements and regulatory readiness documentation.

“These standard measures are required by COVAX before manufacturers can schedule the vaccines for dispatch to Africa,” Dr Moeti said.

During the briefing, Dr Moeti emphasized on WHO’s priority which is to protect the most vulnerable from adverse consequences of the virus, including death. She also advised manufacturers to stand on guard in the case of more mutations of the virus and there is need for adjustments to boost shots.

Dr Moeti said:  “Africa is revving up to rollout COVID-19 vaccines. These thorough vaccine preparation plans will help ensure African countries can hit the ground running in quickly immunizing the most vulnerable people. Meticulous planning is key to ensuring vaccines reach all priority groups, wherever they are, in every single African country.”

Thabani Maphosa, Managing Director, Country Programmes, GAVI revealed that through clear global and regional supply forecasts, COVAX is ready to begin vaccine distribution. Maphosa expressed his optimism on the positive likelihood of the pandemic’s prognosis.

“The world now has its clearest pathway yet to ending the acute stage of this pandemic, globally,” Maphosa said.