Health

Zim scramble for COVAX rescue deal

…As the world holds its breath

MARTHA MAMOMBE

Zimbabwe has submitted an expression of interest to benefit from Covid-19 vaccines as the world is waiting for the introduction of developed vaccines on the market amid the potential second wave of the deadly virus.

The chief coordinator, National Response to Covid 19, Dr Agnes Mahomva, told Business Times that Zimbabwe would be “guided by science and the easy science we are able to access is the World Health Organisation way”.

 “The COVAX group has already identified countries that will need financial support to get vaccines. We happen to be one of those countries.

“There are those who are rich and those in low income groups like us and we are part of the group and we are waiting,” Dr Mahomva said.”

“We already submitted our expression of interest to make sure we won’t be left out when vaccines become available”  

United States- based drug makers, Pfizer and Moderna, have already developed some vaccines to deal with the COVID-19, which have ravaged world economies since the beginning of this year, and has altered the way people live.

One of the world’s leading bio-pharmaceutical firms, Pfizer, in particular, recently announced that it has submitted its application to the Food and Drug Administration to authorise their Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use.

Moderna, however, is expected to apply soon for emergency authorisation.

If the vaccine gets approval, this would allow the Americans to get a vaccine by mid this month.

Both have claimed that their vaccine was safe.

Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, said their vaccine was 95% effective while Moderna made almost similar claims, saying its vaccine was 94.5% effective.

If authorised for emergency use, company officials and the Federal, said there could be enough to immunise about 20m Americans before year-end.

There are hopes that the vaccine would be available worldwide, including in Zimbabwe.

A third vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company, which is said to be about 70% effective, is expected to make its way soon.

While the COVAX intervention could breathe a sigh of relief, the process, however, might take long, and may also be tedious and intensive.

But, the million-dollar question is, how soon will either of the vaccines get to the African continent- particularly the Sub Saharan region which is made up of mostly poor countries, including Zimbabwe?

According to the World Bank the region has an estimated population of over 1.1bn people of different but all-too-common socio-economic circumstances.

Zimbabwe on the other hand has a population of just over 14.6m.

The country had 10 129 confirmed Covid 19 cases, 277 deaths and an 89.3% recovery rate as at December 1, according to latest statistics from the Ministry of Health and Child Care.

Experts say Zimbabwe has far performed much better than initially anticipated, although the threat remains.

The sad reality is that even if all it took was US$1 for a single dose to vaccinate a person against Covid-19, Zimbabwe might find it difficult to raise US$14.6m to get everyone in the country vaccinated.

However, there is hope for low income countries such as Zimbabwe because the COVAX, which is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation and World Health Organisation (WHO), might intervene.

COVAX was launched in April by WHO, the European Commission and France in response to this pandemic.

It brings together governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropy, with the aim of providing innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, according to official data obtained from the COVAX website.

Earlier in the year, there was a wave of misinformation and conspiracy theories around the coronavirus and its would-be vaccines wreaked havoc resulting in irresponsible behaviours by many.

Some religious leaders in many African countries are on record denouncing any vaccine- tying it to a supposed apocalypse that would befall mankind after its use.

Bill Gates at one point became the most Googled person after false news spread linking him to theories of testing vaccines on Africans and using people as guinea pigs.

Gavi which is part of the COVAX is supported financially by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This means, Zimbabwe, whose economy has been on crutches and staggered its way through the last two decades, could benefit from the efforts of COVAX as it was designed with countries such as Zimbabwe in mind.

While the COVAX intervention could breathe a sigh of relief, the process, however, might take long, and may also be tedious and intensive.

“This remains a public health threat. We are in discussions with the Ministry of Health and Child Care as well as the Ministry of Finance who are the core implementers of any vaccination roll-out,” Dr Mahomva said.

“We still don’t know how much we will require. We are also working with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WHO so they can bring in their expertise so that our plans are robust and not flimsy.”

Several analysts who spoke to Business Times said distributing vaccines on the African continent will have to be elaborately planned.

They said the first order of business is information dissemination to counter misinformation and fake news that has taken centre stage, right next to the pandemic itself.

Many fabricated theories have been spread about how the virus can be treated using home remedies or the drug hydroxychloroquine, how it does not affect black people and how people should resist vaccines- misinformation peddled through reckless religious sermons.

Getting the facts to over a billion of people in poor communities where smart phone and internet use remains a luxury will prove costly.

Before people voluntarily agree to be vaccinated, they need to be informed of the benefits, they said.

WHO has coined the term “infodemic” an overabundance of information and the rapid spread of misleading or fabricated news, images and videos.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus recently issued a statement saying the world health body was also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response in addition to fighting the virus.

It is understood that it may take a year if not longer before the vaccine is available to every living being with well-resourced countries having already pre-ordered vaccines.

The United Kingdom pre-ordered 100m doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine-enough for 50m people with two doses required for the vaccine to work.

“Thanks to international solidarity under COVAX which is bringing together close to 200 countries, it is anticipated that every country will have at least 10% of its population vaccinated,” WHO country director Dr Gasasira  told Business Times. 

“This initiative is being supported by a broad range of international institutions including the World Bank, UNICEF and many others. Country level preparedness has already started in Zimbabwe.”

It is also understood that many other Western countries have also ordered millions and millions of vaccines.

Production capacity of pharmaceutical companies, delivery time, distribution and administering efficiency of local health systems will likely delay countries such as Zimbabwe from receiving vaccines sooner rather than later.

While the waiting game has started there is a need for every country to be vigilant and follow Covid 19 guidelines and not fall into the temptation of complacency by reverting to old ways of life pre-Covid.

“As long as we have people close together giving the virus an opportunity to go from one person to the other, the virus will spread. We are not detecting all the cases that are occurring.

Wearing masks, social distancing and hand hygiene is the new normal until such a time that we all have access to a vaccine and or effective treatment we will have to comply with preventative measures,” Dr Gasarira said.

In the interim it is the responsibility of every person to make a personal decision to forego certain liberties- assembling in larger crowds for whatever reason is key.

“The festive season has rolled into life as many anticipate celebratory gatherings as is tradition- at this point that is not advisable. Maybe one day when life returns to normal the world will celebrate having made it through a depressing era,”  Dr Gasarira said.

In the famous words of WHO secretary general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

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