Africa lacks preparedness for virus vaccine roll-out : WHO

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The World Health Organization on Thursday urged African countries to improve their capacity to vaccinate populations against Covid-19, warning the continent was still "far from ready" for mass immunisation.

With three coronavirus vaccines now showing efficacy rates of 70 percent or more, the UN body called on Africa to "ramp up" preparations for "the continent's largest ever immunisation drive".

The African region is so far only 33 percent ready to roll out Covid-19 vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement.

That figure, based on data provided by 40 countries on a series of "readiness criteria", is well below a desired 80 percent benchmark.

"Planning and preparation will make or break this unprecedented endeavour," WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti said during a virtual press briefing.

The main concerns are a lack of adequate funding plans, monitoring tools and community outreach.

"There are key logistical and financing gaps where international solidarity will be imperative," Moeti said.

The WHO estimates that rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine to just priority populations in Africa will cost around $5.7 billion (4.8 billion euros).

African countries will be partially subsidised by the COVAX global Covid-19 distribution scheme.

The World Bank has also set aside $12 billion (10.1 billion euros) to help developing countries finance their immunisation programs.

Moeti said the aim was to vaccinate three percent of Africa's population by March 2021, and 20 percent by the end of the year.

- Africa-based research -

Other health experts at the briefing said additional research was needed to develop vaccines more suitable to the continent.

They noted that a promising vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which tested at a 95 percent success rate at its latest trial, must be kept at -70 degrees celsius -- all but impossible for most hospitals in Africa.

"We really should be doing some of this vaccine research in the African region," said Helen Rees, chair of the WHO's Africa immunisation advisory group.

So far only Egypt, Morocco, Kenya and South Africa have active Covid-19 vaccine trials.

Moeti said it was important for the continent not to fall behind on global preparations for Covid-19 vaccinations even though coronavirus infections had somewhat plateaued.

She noted that Africa has been relatively spared compared to the rest of the world, with over 2.1 million cases and 50,000 deaths recorded to date.

But some countries are beginning to see localised infection surges, particularly in South Africa and the Maghreb.

"We are starting to see an uptick and that gives us a lot of concern," Moeti warned. "The curve is once again trending upwards a little bit."

sch/pma