By Abayomi Azikiwe
As the world experiences another spike in COVID-19 infections, the African continental 55-member states regional organization has held a conference on the necessity of establishing vaccination manufacturing centers.
The African Union (AU) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has spoken out forcefully on what they describe as “vaccine nationalism” where western industrialized states are hoarding supplies while the number of cases continues to rise.
This gathering was hosted by the Republic of Kenya and enjoyed the active participation of many governments in Africa and experts from throughout the scientific community worldwide. The current chairperson of the AU, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Felix Tshisekedi, addressed the event urging all AU governments to pursue a strategy of becoming self-sufficient in regard to vaccine development specifically aimed at curtailing the threats of future pandemics to their 1.3 billion people.
Since the majority of vaccines aimed at curbing the pandemic are being produced in the U.S. and Britain, the primary concerns of the governments of these countries are to take care of their own populations. Within the European continent however, there have been major problems related to the distribution of the vaccines for various reasons.
In Africa overall, less than one percent of the vaccines produced internationally have been distributed on the continent over the last several months. The African Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC) has sounded the alarm noting that unless the western governments take seriously the issue of vaccine equity, the pandemic cannot be brought under control.
The AU conference was held virtually on April 12-13 and enjoyed the participation of not only governments, regional organizations and scientific experts. There were reportedly more than 40,000 people who viewed the proceedings over zoom and other platforms. All of the presentations from governmental officials and others were broadcast from their homes and offices in line with the protocols related to social distancing.
A document issued by the ACDC said of the mission of the gathering:
“Acknowledging that any further spread of COVID-19, as well as potential future pandemics, on the continent is a social, economic, and security threat for the continent. Further, taking into consideration that the African Union Agenda 2063, which is a strategic framework for the socio-economic transformation of the continent over the next 50 years, as well as the successes of the implementations of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be severely disrupted by continued disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 and other potential pathogens. Recognizing that Africa has faced delays compared to other global regions in accessing life-saving vaccines for COVID-19 and may experience similar delays in accessing vaccines in future pandemic or outbreak situations. Cognizant that the African Union has called for a New Public Health Order, with four pillars and the third emphasizing the need for local production of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Recognizing that Africa currently has limited vaccine manufacturing capacity and capabilities.”
Moreover, the suspension of the usage of the Johnson & Johnson one-dose COVID-19 vaccine by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) due to reports of a rare occurrence of blood clots in women between the ages of 18 and 48, has decreased the level of distribution as well as “vaccine hesitancy” prevalent among certain population groups globally. The European regulatory agency has recommended the resumption of usage of the J&J vaccines, yet in the U.S. the production of the product has been halted pending further evaluation of possible side effects.
Nonetheless, the obstacles in Africa which will hamper the development of COVID-19 vaccination production and other challenges are derived from the legacies of enslavement, colonialism and neo-colonialism on the continent. Although there are countries within the AU which have been identified as potential candidates for vaccine manufacturing, the unequal distribution of economic power and political influence remains a major impediment to scientific advancements.
Pandemic Continues in the U.S. and other Geo-political Regions
The U.S. remains the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic where in some states such as Michigan, the B117 variant has become dominant. This variant, thought to have originated in Britain, is said to be more transmissible than the initial wave which struck the U.S. during the winter and spring of 2020.
Overall, in the U.S., the number of cases has continued to rise despite the rollout of vaccination programs throughout the country. Hospital capacity in numerous states is being stretched to the limits. The disease is now impacting younger sectors of the population between the ages of 30-50. People as young as their 20s and even adolescents are being sickened and hospitalized. Public health agencies including the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have lowered the eligibility for receiving the vaccine to those 16 and over. There are efforts underway to develop vaccines for children since there are cases which are surfacing among this segment of the population.
According to a website which tracks the numbers of infections and deaths:
“As of April 18, 2021, around 31 million confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) had been reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the United States. The pandemic has impacted all 50 states, with vast numbers of cases recorded in California, Texas, and Florida. The coronavirus hit the United States in mid-March 2020, and cases started to soar at an alarming rate. The country has performed a high number of COVID-19 tests, which is a necessary step to manage the outbreak, but new coronavirus cases in the U.S. spiked again over the Christmas and New Year holiday season. Authorities must keep a vigilant eye on the virus, and people should continue to follow important public health measures, such as keeping hands clean and avoiding close contact.”
India and Brazil are two other countries where there has been a consistent rise in the number of infections and deaths during 2021. The right-wing Brazilian government of President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the severity of the pandemic following the lead of the former U.S. President Donald Trump. In India, the number of infections is also rising rapidly, overwhelming the ability of the health system to address the crisis.
Vaccines and the Need for Equitable Distribution
There can be no solution to the pandemic without a coordinated international effort involving all countries and geo-political regions. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the ACDC have warned against the failure of western states to work in close collaboration with the developing countries to bring the pandemic under control.
Internationally there have been more than 3 million people who have succumbed to the virus, one million of whom were on the European continent. Globally the number of reported cases stands at 141 million as of April 20.
If the western imperialist nations are not willing to facilitate the sharing of vaccines and pharmaceutical products which have proved effective in treating the COVID-19 infections, the pandemic cannot be brought under control. As long as the public health crisis continues, the economic and political impact will inevitably escalate around the world. Inside the U.S., tensions over police misconduct and racist violence against the nationally oppressed communities has prompted widespread mass demonstrations and rebellions. Mass shootings are increasing at a phenomenal rate while the psychological toll on people of all ages due to social isolation and socioeconomic uncertainty will continue.
A report in Medical News Today on April 9 warns the western nations of the dangerous course they have taken in relationship to the lack of cooperation with underdeveloped regions. The article notes:
“[H]igh-income nations representing 14% of the world’s population now possess up to 53% of the global supply of promising vaccines. That equates to 100% of the Moderna vaccine supply and 96% of the doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. And many high-to-middle income countries have worked to secure a supply of vaccines large enough to vaccinate their entire population several times over. Canada, for example, has bought enough to vaccinate its entire population five times…. At current global vaccination rates, it will take 4.6 years to achieve worldwide herd immunity against COVID-19. This lengthy time gap will likely allow variants of the virus to develop and spread, potentially rendering current vaccines ineffective.”