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Vaccine demand spirals as third wave hits home

Delta variant has reached 26 countries with case fatality rates among the world's highest

As the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across Africa, the continent has become the most vulnerable region hit by the more transmissible Delta variant of the disease due to lack of vaccines and health facilities.

Covax, the global vaccine partnership, hopes to get 520 million doses to Africa by the end of this year and another 850m by the end of March 2022. But that will be far too late for the immediate crisis (AC Dispatches 21/05/21, Pressure mounts on rich countries and big pharma to act on global vaccine inequity).

The African Union and Covax are to take delivery of over 20m doses from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer BionTech from the United States. France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are adding hundreds of thousands more. But the total is well short of the requirements of a continent of 1.3 billion people.

Ghana, Morocco and South Africa are making progress with their vaccination programmes after a slow start. The Delta variant has reached 26 countries in Africa and case fatality rates are among the world's highest.

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington DC, Namibia, where just 1.2% of the population is vaccinated, is recording one death for every 22 cases compared with Britain, where over 50% of people are vaccinated and one death is recorded for every 750 cases.

Each week 6,500 people are dying of coronavirus in Africa: that means some 150,000 lives could be lost over the next two months when epidemiologists expect infections to peak in those countries reporting cases of the Delta variant. That will almost equal the 160,000 lives lost across the continent since the first recorded case of Covid-19 in Nigeria in March 2020 (AC Dispatches 21/05/21, Pressure mounts on rich countries and big pharma to act on global vaccine inequity).

So far, 80% of the recorded deaths have been in six countries: Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Case numbers in all countries with the Delta variant are rising but some officials in South Africa suggest the third wave of infections may have peaked there.

Proliferating mutations are another concern: in Tanzania, where until recently the government declined to impose anti-pandemic restrictions, at least 34 mutations have been recorded.

The ferocity of the third wave of the pandemic in Africa has prompted calls for more investment in vaccine production in Africa. Currently there are plants in seven countries: Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Rwanda and South Africa (AC Vol 62 No 10, Fatigue may be fatal).

Zimbabwe telecoms magnate Strive Masiyiwa, who is leading the AU team to speed up vaccine distribution, last week called on the top pharma companies to step up plans to build production in Africa. Masiyiwa wants the plants to go beyond the 'fill and finish' model under which Western companies would still control the core production processes at their plants in Europe and the US.

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