Most African countries depend on vaccine doses from abroad, even if there are efforts to build up local production centers. But, as the number of cases rises in Europe, supplies to Africa will likely suffer. Germany, for example, has already made a decision to retain vaccine doses that were destined for poorer countries.
“We have even postponed some of our COVAX donations, international BioNTech donations, from December to January and February so that there will be enough doses in Germany,”
Health Minister Jens Spahn said this week. His words came just a few days after World Health Organization (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticised certain countries for stockpiling vaccines.
“Every day, there are six times more boosters administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries,” he said. “This is a scandal that must stop now.”
The non-profit ONE Campaign has called for the German government to reverse its decision and to continue to give doses to COVAX as pledged.
“If we don’t move fast to ensure that people all over the world have access to vaccines, we will be prolonging the pandemic visibly,” ONE Germany director Stephan Exo-Kreischer told DW, before describing Spahn’s decision as a “huge mistake and a devastating signal to the world regarding Germany’s dependency.”
Furthermore, he argued, Germany had bought more doses than it needs. “There are more people in rich countries who have now received a third shot than there are people in poorer countries who have received even a first shot,” he continued.
“This is the result of bad politics.” The Health Ministry told DW that Germany was providing a total of 100 million free doses to be distributed mainly via COVAX. According to the ministry, the government has invested 2.2 bn euros ($2.5 billion) into speeding up the development, production and distribution of tests and materials, including 1.6 bn euros for the COVAX program.
Despite the low vaccination rates, there is currently a downward trend in new COVID-19 cases in Africa. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has registered a total of 8.5 million cases, of which over 222,000 were fatal.
But Exo-Kreischer believes these numbers were probably erroneous: “We have to assume that fewer than 15% of cases on the continent are actually detected. Even if the numbers seem low on paper, the WHO estimates that they are seven times higher.”
He said a lack of good qualitative data was the issue, pointing out that South Africa had low rates, whereas infections in Tanzania have not been recorded in a systematic way.
“The good record regarding infection rates is actually related to the fact that there is too little testing and reporting,” said Wolfgang Preiser, from South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. But he said it was possible to make estimates from excess mortality data:
“In South Africa, three times more people have died of COVID-19 than has been reported officially.” “I think that we will only be presented with the bill in years to come,” he said, before pointing out that other illnesses were also being neglected because of the pandemic.
Only 23% of South Africa’s 59 million inhabitants are vaccinated, and there are almost 3 million cases at the moment.
There are enough doses, as opposed to in most African countries, where there are shortages, but “the biggest challenge is actually vaccinating people: There are more doses than can be used, like in industrialised countries.”