Give vaccines to Africa and ditch unproven third shot, AU says

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Rich nations would do better to send vaccines to Africa to help fight the global COVID-19 pandemic rather than hoarding them for third-dose booster shots that scientific evidence does not back, the African Union’s (AU) top health official said on Thursday.

Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) director John Nkengasong told a news conference he was baffled some rich countries were disregarding World Health Organization (WHO) advice to hold off from booster shots until more people were fully vaccinated worldwide.

“The problem we have with the third doses is: we have not seen enough science behind them,” he said. “It is really confusing to me as to why we are moving towards a vast (administration) … of the booster dose.”

Wealthy countries such as Germany, France and Israel are planning to administer third shots, over concerns that immunity from the standard two-shot regimen is waning.

“We do not know at what point immunity drops to a level at which it stops offering (protection),” Nkengasong said. “Without (that science), you’ll surely be gambling.”

The global programme providing COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries is on course to fall nearly 30% short of its previous goal of 2 billion shots this year, the international organisations running it said on Wednesday.

The COVAX programme also urged rich countries that had met their domestic needs to forfeit volumes rather than administer third shots.

Later on Thursday, WHO’s Africa head Matshidiso Moeti reiterated calls for “wealthy countries with vaccines supplies that are well beyong their population’s needs,” to share them.

“we are advocating for them … to provide these through COVAX to low income countries,” she said. “It is urgent now (for Africa) to catch up in vaccinating”.

Nkengasong said third shot programmes would make it hard for Africa to meet its target for vaccinating 60% to 70% of people, for which it needed at least 1.6 billion doses.

Currently only 3% of the continent were vaccinated, he said, while 145.4 million vaccine doses had been procured across the continent, of which three quarters had been administered.

In the meantime, the coronavirus continued to evolve, as it coursed though unvaccinated populations, he said: “Today it’s the Delta variant, tomorrow we just don’t know which variant will be out there.”

Africa has recorded 7.9 million cases, of which 201,000 have been fatal, he said.

Photo: A man (C), wearing a face masks walks next to a graffiti mural depicting a nurse trying to hold back coronavirus with a chain trying to stop it from pulling the planet earth that is trying to run away from it painted by an art group known as Art360, in the Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya. EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu