As COVID-19 vaccine supply improves, African countries find creative ways to get doses into arms
Omicron is still ripping through the world. The virus poses the biggest threat to the unvaccinated, yet vaccination rates remain extremely patchy. Some countries are mulling a fourth dose, while just 11% of Africans are fully vaxxed. For many months, supply shortages on the continent have meant every single dose is precious. That’s given birth to some creative ways of getting doses into arms.
Supply of COVID vaccine doses has long been the limiting factor across Africa. Now that these issues are slowly being resolved, other challenges are starting to loom larger as barriers to vaccination. Not least among them the logistical challenge of getting vaccine doses to where they are needed. The path from manufacturer to patient is often a long and difficult one.
Vaccine doses arriving at an international port often face a convoluted onward journey. The first major concern is expiry dates, with most COVID vaccine doses only lasting three to six months. Worse still, doses donated to Africa often arrive just before they expire, meaning too many end up being returned or destroyed.
The next challenges are storage and transportation. Most COVID vaccines must be kept at extremely low temperatures, yet the majority of low-income countries have only very limited cold storage capacity or refrigerated vehicles for transport. This often leads to a supply bottleneck and a shortage of doses outside of big cities.
The good news is that there are solutions. African nations are working creatively to overcome these challenges, with many drawing on previous experiences with mass vaccination campaigns. Now they are sharing insights about logistics, coordination, and infrastructure with their neighbors.
And there is much experience to draw on. Liberia, for example, knew from its Ebola vaccine roll-out that COVID vaccination sites were best set up in busy places — churches, mosques, banks and markets. Along with other countries that recently fought devastating Ebola outbreaks, Liberia already had some capacity to store vaccines at cold temperatures — also a requirement for the Ebola vaccine.
Others have found innovative ways to oversee distribution. Ghana uses drones to deliver doses to remote areas, while Botswana and Ethiopia have pioneered new distribution models. Ivory Coast set up a network of mobile clinics across the country, most recently appearing at Africa Cup of Nations soccer matches. South Sudan is using tools adapted from polio campaigns to track distribution.
Logistical challenges are just one half of the struggle. Another major hurdle is vaccine hesitancy. Tackling COVID disinformation is a key priority across Africa, as it is in the rest of the world. Here too, African nations are getting creative, from social media campaigns to centralized rumor taskforces and vaccine hotlines.
The United Nations is helping Africa meet its vaccination rollout goals. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF are working to support the whole process, from securing doses to distributing them, helping with cold storage infrastructure and tackling vaccine lies. The UN’s Verified campaign has partnered with the Ministries of Health in South Africa and Kenya on vaccine confidence campaigns.
And we are learning lessons. Most importantly, all nations need a reliable supply of doses. That means the rest of the world must commit to providing better quality donations. They must give reasonable notice of donations, and donated doses must have a shelf life of more than 10 weeks. Syringes must be included, freight costs covered.
This is not just a moral imperative. The world, still reeling from Omicron, has a vested interest in Africa getting vaccinated. We must do everything in our power to prevent or delay the emergence of a new more transmissible variant. Vaccines remain our most effective tools. Where there is no vaccine coverage, the virus spreads entirely unchecked, and creates a breeding ground for new variants.
That’s why we all need Africa to meet the WHO target of vaccinating 70% of its population as quickly as possible. (Right now, that isn’t predicted to happen until the end of 2024). Just six African nations hit the year-end target of vaccinating 40% of their citizens. Only 20 managed 10%. That puts us all at risk.
The African continent has its work cut out. But with global support, and building on hard-won lessons, there are ways to ease the logistical burden on already overstretched health systems. The continent is full of good ideas to get vaccines into arms. Let’s help do that, for all our sakes.