By Abayomi Azikiwe
Several countries within the African Union (AU), a 55-member body encompassing independent states and the Western Sahara, through its Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC), has issued statements in recent weeks related to the acquisition, use and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
During the early phases of the pandemic, the number of recorded cases on the continent was relatively low in comparison to the rates of infection in other geo-political regions, particularly in the United States and Western Europe.
However, the appearance of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 which have appeared in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil is raising scientific and public health questions about the viability of the existing vaccines and those which are most effective against the evolving genomes. In South Africa, the government suspended the use of Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines supplied by the Serum Institute of India based upon preliminary results from a trial study conducted inside the country.
The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, according to the initial results of the study, proved to be less effective in regard to preventing mild and moderate symptoms among those contracting the virus. Since the release of these findings, the Ministry of Health in the Republic of South Africa has announced that it will begin inoculations utilizing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which clinical trials indicated had 57% efficacy against the virus. The J&J vaccine has been deemed effective against the variant which has surfaced in South Africa, 501Y.V2.
With the rise in COVID-19 cases in several African states such news related to the uncertainty of vaccine efficacy had to be addressed by the African CDC and health ministries across the continent. Vaccinations programs are already in operation in Morocco and Egypt while other countries such as Zimbabwe rollout their own projects.
AU member-states are already facing serious challenges to healthcare systems due to the overall structural problems inherited from colonialism and neo-colonialism. The lack of hospitals, clinics, trained physicians, and other medical personnel along with access to pharmaceutical products and therapeutics are direct manifestations of the unequal status of African states in relationship to the western industrialized nations.
Consequently, healthcare professionals and public officials are viewing the acquisition and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as the best possible hope to curb and eliminate the crisis. This same outlook is prevalent throughout the world in both the geo-political regions of the Southern Hemisphere as well as the North. Therefore, absent of a mass vaccination program, the peoples of most nations throughout the world will be faced with an uncertain social, economic and political future.
The African CDC issued a press release in regard to these recent developments involving the use of vaccines on the continent. The media advisory noted:
“Many countries in Africa are managing the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been over 3.6 million cases and over 96,000 deaths reported on the continent since the first official case was reported on the continent on 14 February 2020. The continent’s case fatality rate of 2.6 percent is above the global average of 2.2 percent. The emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant known as N501Y.V2 (or B.1.351) is associated with increased rate of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and has been of concern across the continent because of the increased pressure that the high number of new infections will place on the healthcare systems, many of which are already overburdened. As of 9 February 2021, South Africa reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases on the continent, with more than 1.4 million cases and over 45,000 deaths. The new variant accounts for at least 80 percent of new cases identified during the country’s second wave of the pandemic.”
The Role of China in the African Vaccine Programs
Republic of Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced in a press conference on February 15 that the Southern African state would begin its vaccination program in collaboration with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Sinopharm, a state-owned company headquartered in Beijing, has agreed to import vaccine doses to address the threat of a further spread of COVID-19 infections.
Several high-profile members of the Zimbabwe government and the ruling ZANU-PF party have contracted and succumbed to the disease. Foreign Minister S.B. Moyo, a key player in the current administration, died from COVID-19 in late January, among others.
An article published by the Zimbabwe Herald on February 16, featured an interview with Mashonaland East Provincial Epidemiology official, Paul Matsvimbo, giving an indication of what is being done inside the country. Matsvimbo was quoted as saying that:
“All is set for the roll out of the COVID 19 vaccine in the province and we have put in place all the logistics. We have put in place measures to ensure there is a flawless start to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. We are all ready for the vaccine and training is expected to start Tuesday (Feb. 16) while distribution is expected to start as soon as we receive the vaccines from the national stores. Marondera and Mutoko hospitals are going to be our disposal centers as we have functional incinerators there. The first phase of the vaccine rollout will start with 7000 frontline workers to be immunized at 213 centers.”
China committed as early as last May to provide vaccines to developing countries. President Xi Jinping was reported to have said at the World Health Assembly that it would share any additional vaccines with those geo-political regions where the product was inaccessible. Several African leaders such as former AU Chairperson and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa have accused the imperialist states of “vaccine nationalism”, remaining largely unconcerned about the public health of people outside the western countries.
Sinopharm says that its vaccine is 80% effective against COVID-19. The product has been approved for distribution in a dozen countries impacting hundreds of millions of people. Early Phase I and II data suggests that the vaccine is safe. Outside of Africa, at least two countries in Europe, Hungary and Serbia, have arranged to utilize Sinopharm.
Africa has a population of 1.3 billion and the Director of the African CDC, Dr. John Nkengasong, says that the aim of the continental body is to vaccinate 60% of the population in order to achieve herd immunity. At the same time, the ACDC and other relevant institutions are continuing to encourage the maintenance of other established public health protocols to eradicate the pandemic in Africa.
Socialized Medicine is Needed on a Global Scale
The rate of coronavirus vaccinations in Africa is far lower than what exists in the U.S. and Europe. The rate for vaccinations in the U.S. is now significantly higher than in Europe.
Nonetheless, inside the European Union countries and the U.S., millions are concerned about the pace of vaccinations and the efficiency of distribution. Phone lines at hospitals and pharmacies in the U.S. are jammed with people, particularly senior citizens and those suffering from chronic ailments, demanding to know when either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines will be available.
Infections rates and deaths are reportedly down in the U.S. while the appearance of the UK and South African variants are being reported in several states. There are elements within the political and social superstructure of the U.S. which are continuing to urge the total reopening of business activities, sports, restaurants, schools, etc., while the number of people killed in the pandemic is approaching 500,000.
The major problem in the U.S. is the lack of a consistent pandemic policy which could have saved many lives. The previous administration proved contemptuous of the scientific and medical community often undermining its own COVID-19 Task Force. The Biden-Harris administration has again empowered the directors of research institutions and agencies to speak to the media.
However, the rapidly developing social crisis in the U.S. and the other capitalist states, largely stems from the unequal distribution of resources fostered by the profit system. Under a socialist system, the government could plan ahead for the number of physicians, nurses, therapists and other medical personnel needed to protect the overall population and to build preparedness for pandemics such as COVID-19, and the inevitable appearance of other infectious diseases.
All healthcare treatments would be guaranteed under socialism. The access and distribution of vaccines and other medicines would be carried on the basis of need and availability.