As the wealthy world rolls out Covid-19 booster shots, hundreds of millions of Africans remain dangerously exposed, still awaiting their first vaccine dose. Not only does this add to the array of harsh inequalities we’ve seen around this virus, but it’s an outrageous damage to global solidarity and vaccine equality.
While early data on waning immunity around some vaccines, there is no conclusive evidence to justify giving boosters to fit, healthy people. Third doses should only be given to a small number of people facing a high risk of serious illness and death, despite being fully vaccinated, including those with compromised immune systems. Boosters for the healthy people are in fact a hopeful ‘why not’. Political decisions prejudge science, divert doses and leave Africans few options.
Giving boosters to healthy people is like sending a generous college scholarship to a billionaire while others scrape together their tuition.
While Africa has weathered the Covid-19 pandemic better than many people expected, we are seeing each wave go harder and faster. The third wave was the worst yet, and it’s already putting pressure on stretched and fragile health systems. While new cases every week are declining, they stay high, and the pace of the descent is very slow. The continent just passed eight million reported cases, and it urgently needs vaccines to mitigate the impact of a fourth wave.
Even before vaccines were approved, rich countries were buying up far more doses than they needed while beating others in the back of the line. Nine months after the arrival of the first vaccine, only 20 percent of people in low- and lower-middle-income countries have received a first dose — compared to 80 percent in many high- and upper-middle-income countries.
Questions about the Covid-19 vaccine and its rollout.
Perhaps no group of countries has been hit harder by this vaccine hoarding than the countries of Africa. Shipments nearly came to a standstill for months, as promised supplies dried up due to global shortages and export bans. Today, just 51 million people – or 3.6 percent – of the African population is fully vaccinated, compared to over 60 percent in the UK and the European Union and nearly 55 percent in the United States.
Shipments are being collected, and we are grateful for the international solidarity and leadership shown by the United States and other partners in multimillion-dose sharing, including through Covax, which is committed to the equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide.
Some estimates indicate that even if rich countries approve booster shots, they will still have more than a billion excess doses by the end of 2021. But that doesn’t mean those doses will be shared or that they’ll get to those who need them on time. Only 15 percent of over a billion doses pledged by high-income countries have arrived in Africa so far. Rich countries must let go of reserved doses and relinquish their place in line so Covax and the African Union can buy the vaccines the continent is seeking and willing to fund.
Export restrictions, production restrictions and delays in regulatory approvals have caused Covax to: slash the delivery forecast for this year by about 25 percent. other commitments may not be fulfilled before mid next year. Africa and other parts of the world need these vaccines. Utilities.
Governments have a duty to their own people, of course, but giving boosters to fully vaccinated individuals goes against the interests of rich countries. Countries with low vaccination coverage could act as breeding grounds for variants, increasing the risk of more dangerous variants emerging and penetrating international travel networks.
We have already seen the havoc caused by the Delta variant. Now present in 180 countries, this highly portable variant leads to: rising deaths in many rich countries. It also complicates Africa’s response to the pandemic, triggers new flare-ups and keeps new cases high.
Reports from millions of doses are wasted or thrown away in rich countries are heartbreaking. Like so many other people I know here in the Republic of Congo and at home in Botswana, I have lost friends and colleagues to Covid-19. Any of those wasted doses could have saved a life in Africa.
The travesty of vaccine inequality will also affect low-income countries economically. Global economic losses from delayed vaccinations could, by one estimate, will run into the trillions of dollars in the coming years if low- and middle-income countries can’t vaccinate most of their people soon. The International Monetary Fund recently cited access to vaccines as the “main fault line” along which the global economic recovery diverges. If vaccine inequalities persist, growth rates in poorer countries may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
To help countries fully vaccinate 40 percent of their people, the World Health Organization has called for: a moratorium on booster shots for fit, healthy people until the end of December.
Despite all this, at least 13 countries are already giving or planning to give boosters, and several are considering it. If all high- and upper-middle-income countries gave boosters to everyone aged 50 and older, nearly a billion doses of vaccine would be needed each year, according to an analysis by the WHO. With two-dose vaccines, that’s enough to vaccinate nearly 40 percent of the African population – the global year-end target set by the WHO. in May 2021.
The WHO is working with national regulators around the world to collect data on boosters. Only a coordinated research effort will help us understand how much additional protection they provide.
So we don’t say “never”. But now is not the time to give boosters to fully vaccinated people with fully functioning immune systems.
We don’t yet know how many boosters can help protect people, but we do know that their deployment will hurt the prospects of many in Africa.
The people most at risk should be vaccinated first. Wherever they are.
dr. Matshidiso Muti (@MoetiTshidi) is the WHO’s regional director for Africa. She previously worked at the United Nations Program for HIV and AIDS and at the Botswana Ministry of Health as a physician and public health specialist.
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