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African health official blasts ‘terrible’ vaccine inequality

December 10, 2020 GMT
A grave digger prepares graves at the Motherwell Cemetery in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020 that the country is now experiencing a Covid-19 pandemic second wave. (AP Photo/Theo Jeftha)
A grave digger prepares graves at the Motherwell Cemetery in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020 that the country is now experiencing a Covid-19 pandemic second wave. (AP Photo/Theo Jeftha)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — “It will be extremely terrible to see” rich countries receiving COVID-19 vaccines while African countries go without, especially as a new surge in cases begins on the continent of 1.3 billion people, Africa’s top public health official said Thursday.

As the world watches mass vaccinations begin in Britain, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong has warned that Africa might not see vaccines until after the second quarter of 2021.

Nkengasong urged the United Nations to summon a special session to discuss the ethical, fair distribution of vaccines to avoid “this North-South distrust in respect to vaccines, which is a common good.”

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COVID-19 will not be defeated in the West alone, he said, and he took aim at “today’s dialogue of suspicion” as rich countries buy vaccines “in excess of their needs while we in Africa are still struggling with the COVAX facility,” the multinational initiative designed to deliver at least some vaccines to less developed countries.

Africa won’t receive nearly enough vaccines from COVAX to reach the goal of vaccinating 60% of the population to achieve herd immunity, Nkengasong said, and he appealed to countries with excess doses to give them to COVAX or countries in need.

He has warned that the coronavirus could become endemic in Africa if vaccinations take too long.

In a separate briefing, Richard Mihigo of the World Health Organization said it’s time “to make a strong appeal” for equitable access, calling it a “real problem” as some countries have ordered far more doses than needed.

Africa’s 54 countries now have a total of more than 2.3 million confirmed infections, including 100,000 in the past week.

“Clearly the second wave is here, no doubt,” the Africa CDC director said. He called this “a pivotal moment in the history of our continent” with development in the balance.

As he spoke, the World Trade Organization was meeting in Geneva on a request by South Africa and India to waive some intellectual property rules to allow for faster, easier access to COVID-19 vaccines around the world.

“But a small group of high-income countries and their trading partners have opposed it including Brazil, the European Union, Canada, the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement with Amnesty International supporting the waiver.

The U.S. has said the waiver would be a “broad and unprecedented step,” according to notes from an internal WTO meeting last month. The EU said the waiver could “undermine the ongoing public-private collaboration” on equitable access and stressed the need to “preserve incentives.” Britain said the waiver would create “long-term uncertainty.”

Bangladesh, however, told the meeting that unconditional, affordable vaccine access is “a matter of extreme urgency.”

Rohit Malpani, a Paris-based public health consultant, said opposition to the waiver would further delay the production of vaccines.

“We have a situation where donor countries say they’re willing to provide funds to COVAX to buy vaccines but there are none available because of the (intellectual property) issue,” he said.

“It’s like inviting someone to dinner and giving them a plate but then keeping all the food.”

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Maria Cheng in London contributed.