Africa Covid-19 vaccine drive slowed by indemnity spat, Pfizer preference

Delays in vaccinating the continent will likely lead to additional resurgences of the virus. PHOTO: REUTERS

ABUJA, NIGERIA (BLOOMBERG) - A drive to get Africans vaccinated against the coronavirus is being hamstrung by governments' reluctance to sign indemnity clauses, a preference for Pfizer vaccines over other more readily available shots and a lack of preparedness to distribute the inoculations.

Delays in vaccinating the continent's more than 1.3 billion people will likely lead to additional resurgences of the virus, may result in mutations that will potentially be more transmissible and could lead to economic damage associated with strict lockdowns.

Fewer than 20 million people have been inoculated in Africa, with almost half of those living in Morocco, according to Bloomberg's Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker.

So far, seven African countries have yet to start vaccinating their populations, said Ms Phionah Atuhebwe, the New Vaccines Introduction Medical Officer for Africa for the World Health Organisation.

Eritrea, Burundi and Tanzania have so far declined to join Covax, the global initiative that most African countries are relying on to secure the shots, while Burkina Faso has not signed the indemnity and liability agreements needed to allow shipments of the vaccines to the country, Ms Atuhebwe said in an April 30 interview.

Burkinabe officials say they have signed all agreements they were asked to.

Vaccine preference

Madagascar has only recently expressed interest in securing vaccines and joined Covax, and the Central African Republic has just put together a vaccine deployment plan, according to Ms Atuhebwe.

Chad has meanwhile rejected shots developed by AstraZeneca that Covax has to offer and said it will wait for Pfizer shots to become available, she said.

"Madagascar is a priority, Central African Republic is a priority" for inoculations, she said.

"Burkina Faso said they are not ready now for deployment."

Already the Democratic Republic of Congo has ceded 1.3 million of the 1.7 million vaccine doses it received because it said it did not have the capability to distribute them.

Burkina Faso would have received a portion of one million AstraZeneca vaccines sold by South Africa to the African Union, but was not ready to receive them, Ms Atuhebwe said.

The delay in starting vaccinations in Chad is purely due to its vaccine preference, a government official said.

"We prefer Pfizer over the other vaccines, so we decided to wait," Ms Ouchemi Choua, the National Health Response Coordinator for Chad's vaccination programme, said from N'Djamena, the capital, adding that Pfizer doses are expected to start arriving in June.

"The delay won't have any major impact on the response, as long as distribution starts as scheduled."

AstraZeneca's shot appears to be less effective against a variant of the virus first identified in South Africa late last year, and concerns that it may cause blood clots have seen delays in its roll-out in Europe and elsewhere.

Signatures needed

Still, Chad is yet to sign a number of agreements, including some needed by Pfizer to allow it to receive vaccines, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified as they are not allowed to speak to the press.

Burkina Faso is finalising the documentation to receive its first doses, but as at April 28 had not signed indemnity agreements, the person said.

"Vaccines are a delicate matter," Mr Emmanuel Seni, public health director at Burkina Faso's Health Ministry, said by phone.

"We didn't want to sign anything before we knew exactly what we were agreeing to."

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