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Booster Shots in Rich Countries Threaten COVID Containment in Africa

FILE - A Kenyan man receives a dose of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine donated by Britain, at the Makongeni Estate in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 14, 2021.
FILE - A Kenyan man receives a dose of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine donated by Britain, at the Makongeni Estate in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 14, 2021.

World Health Organization officials warn that decisions by rich countries to provide COVID-19 booster shots to their vaccinated populations will set back efforts to contain the spread of this deadly disease in Africa.

The United States, France, and Germany are among a growing number of wealthy countries planning to offer COVID-19 booster shots to their populations. This, at a time when the world’s poorer nations are struggling to get even one jab of these life-saving vaccines into their peoples’ arms.

WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, warns that moves by some countries to introduce booster shots threaten Africa’s ability to extricate itself from this crushing disease. She says richer countries that are hoarding vaccines are making a mockery of vaccine equity.

"High-income countries have already, on average, administered more than 103 doses per 100 people, whereas in Africa that number stands at six," said Moeti. "Failure to vaccinate the most at-risk groups in all countries will result in needless deaths. … It will also contribute to conditions where the virus will very likely mutate further and could ultimately delay the global recovery from this pandemic.”

The World Health Organization reports there are more than 7.3 million cases of coronavirus infections on the African continent, including 184,000 deaths. It is calling for a two-month moratorium on booster shots, so countries can beef up their vaccine supplies.

Moeti says some progress is being made in this regard. She notes the COVAX Facility has delivered nearly 10 million vaccine doses to Africa so far this month. That, she says, is nine times what was delivered in the same period in July.

"Vaccine coverage, unfortunately, remains low, with only two percent of Africans being fully vaccinated against COVID-19," said Moeti. "… We are hopeful that COVAX shipments will keep ramping up to reach 20 percent of Africa’s population by the end of this year. And coupled with deliveries from the African Union and bilateral deals, WHO’s hoped-for target of vaccinating 30 percent of people by the end of the year is still within our reach.”

West Africa has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began. WHO reports a 193 percent increase in fatalities over the past four weeks. This is happening at a time when several West African countries are grappling with outbreaks of other diseases, including cholera, Ebola, and Marburg virus Disease.

Moeti says fighting multiple outbreaks is a complex challenge. She notes that West Africa health systems are more fragile than those in other sub-regions. She says they are under great strain due to the surge of COVID-19 cases. She is appealing for major investments by governments and donors to ensure outbreaks are continuously prevented, detected and quickly contained.