Africa waits for donated Covid-19 vaccines as cases rise

JOHANNESBURG – In Uganda, hospitals are so overwhelmed with new cases of coronavirus that people are dying while waiting for a bed. In Namibia, all elective surgeries have been canceled to preserve space for Covid-19 patients and military hospitals have been opened for civilian use. In South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, intensive care wards are filling up and hospitals stocking oxygen cylinders as infections rise again.

Across Africa, which has received fewer Covid-19 vaccines than any other continent, countries are facing a new wave of coronavirus infections without the vaccinations that have turned the tide of the pandemic in Europe and North America. North.

News that the Group of Seven countries will donate at least one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries suggests some relief on a continent where 0.6% of the 1.3 billion people have been entirely vaccinated against Covid-19.

However, donated vaccines – most of which won’t start arriving until August or later – may not prevent many African governments from running out of vaccines in the weeks to come, as deliveries from the Covax program supported by the World Health Organization for developing countries have slowed down to a trickle.

Meanwhile, new, more transmissible virus variants are taking root in several African countries, escalating their struggle to bounce back from the continent’s worst recession on record.

Donated vaccines will help immunize the millions of doctors and nurses who work in some of the world’s weakest health systems, often treating Covid-19 patients without the protection their colleagues elsewhere received months ago . Health officials say millions of additional doses are needed to immunize the general population and end the pandemic.

A shipment of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from the Covax program arrived at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda in March.


Hajarah Nalwadda / Zuma Press

“The continent is going through a third wave, there is no doubt about it,” said John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “All countries… need to have treatment facilities. This includes the availability of oxygen and other products related to the treatment.

The number of cases is on the rise in 14 of the 54 countries in Africa, increasing by 26% in the first week of June, compared to the previous seven days, said Dr Nkengasong. The epicenters of new epidemics are in national capitals, where there is often more capacity to register cases. The situation in towns and villages remains largely unknown.

Kinshasa, a megalopolis of some 11 million people and the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is under curfew after the WHO detected an exponential increase in cases in May. “We are not only overwhelmed, but sometimes we are without water, electricity, oxygen or even beds,” said Augustin Mulumba, a doctor who works in the Covid-19 department of the Cinquantenaire Hospital, a large private hospital in Kinshasa.

Daily infections in South Africa‘s most populous province, Gauteng, home to its political and economic capitals, Pretoria and Johannesburg, have nearly doubled in the past week. Epidemiologists warn cities could set death records later this month.

At Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg, Covid-19 patients have to wait up to five days for a place in the intensive care unit while beds in other wards also fill up quickly, said a doctor there. work. At Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, another large public hospital in Johannesburg, doctors from other departments are being transferred to the Covid-19 ward to help cope with an influx of patients.

Lack of knowledge about Covid-19 and problems with vaccine distribution could lead to more and stronger variants in the future, CDC Africa director and UK president of Covid-19 Genomics told Betsy McKay of the WSJ.

Concerned about its struggling economy, the South African government has been hesitant to impose a new lockdown, with indoor dining and gatherings of up to 100 people still allowed.

According to official data, infections in Africa still represent only a tiny fraction of the global burden of cases. But limited testing capacities and widespread reluctance to seek help in hospitals, even with severe illness, means the true scale of the pandemic on the continent remains difficult to assess.

Some doctors and health officials in the hardest-hit countries say this new wave of infections looks more dangerous than previous ones. “This new wave is deadlier, more young people are infected,” said Medard Rutaro, surgeon at Mulago Hospital in Uganda. “It is no longer the disease of the elderly.”

The East African nation of 42 million saw Covid-19 cases more than double for the second week in a row, to 1,144, as infections clustered among health workers and students from schools and universities, mainly in the capital Kampala. President Yoweri Museveni on Sunday announced a new lockdown, closing schools for six weeks and banning most gatherings, warning that “the intensity of patients and severe and critically ill Covid-19 deaths is much higher in this wave “.

Daily infections in the South African state which includes Johannesburg have nearly doubled over the past week; a woman received a Covid-19 vaccine outside of town last month.


siphiwe sibeko / Reuters

At Mulago Hospital, the largest in Uganda, floods of ambulances are bringing critically ill patients in need of oxygen. With the intensive care units full, patients are forced to sleep upstairs in the hospital. Doctors here say they have detected a noticeable increase in the number of severe cases among young people.

Uganda has only received a third of the three million vaccines the Covax program was expected to deliver by the end of May. Covax is no longer receiving vaccines from its main supplier in India due to an export ban imposed by the New Delhi government, but says it is working to close a gap of some 250 million doses of the vaccine. ‘by the end of September thanks to vaccine donations and agreements. with other manufacturers. Some 4,000 Chinese vaccines arrived in December, but were only administered to selected Ugandan government officials and workers in the Chinese diaspora.


What needs to be done to improve the global immunization campaign? Join the conversation below.

Public health officials are also concerned about the emergence of the Delta variant, a strain first detected in India. Early data from the UK indicate that the variant is between 40% and 80% more transmissible than the Alpha variant which is currently dominant in Europe and the US

It is increasingly widespread in Kampala and Kinshasa, but has only been detected in small numbers in South Africa. The very limited genome sequencing, used to identify variants, in most African countries makes it difficult to understand whether it is behind some of the current outbreaks, Dr Nkengasong said.

The current wave of Africa is expected to exacerbate a historic divergence between the economies of the richest and poorest countries in the world.

Unvaccinated and without the help of major government stimulus measures, the continent’s middle class, a key driver of economic, educational and political development, is shrinking rapidly, according to the Pew Research Center. It has barely been dented in the United States and China.

Covid-19 in Africa

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Leonard Chepkwony, a 53-year-old travel and travel agency owner from Nairobi, whose business has effectively been dormant since the pandemic shut down the tourism industry, said the latest wave will be even more devastating .

“We were hoping to get back on our feet,” said Mr. Chepkwony. “Many tourism businesses are just closer to the cliff of total failure.”

Of the 2.2 billion vaccines administered worldwide, less than 36 million have been administered in Africa, according to the Africa CDC. Three African countries – Tanzania, Burundi and Eritrea – have not vaccinated anyone. Without an increase in supplies, only seven countries in the WHO Africa region will have vaccinated 10% of their population by the end of September, said the agency’s regional director, Matshidiso Moeti.

In Seychelles, the most vaccinated country in Africa, there has been an upsurge in cases, possibly due to new variants and the relatively lower efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine.

Families in Uganda are already counting the cost. Susan Buwule tried to find a place for her mother with Covid in every intensive care unit in Kampala, but there were no beds available. Her mother died on Monday. “They were all full of Covid-19 patients,” Ms. Buwule said. “Doctors think she would have survived if she had found a bed.”

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected], Nicholas Bariyo at [email protected] and Joe Parkinson at [email protected]

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