The World Health Organisation-led COVAX global initiative has failed to shortlist Nigeria for the Pfizer vaccines following the country’s inability to meet the standard requirement of being able to store the vaccines at the required -70 degrees Celsius.
The Nigerian government had stated that it was expected to receive 100,000 doses through the COVAX initiative, which was set up to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, regardless of income level.
Speaking at a virtual press conference however, the Director, WHO, African Region, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said only four African countries were shortlisted for the Pfizer vaccine out of the 13 that applied.
Moeti said WHO could not risk the Pfizer vaccines being wasted.
She said, “Around 320,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been allocated to four African countries – Cape Verde, Rwanda, South Africa and Tunisia. This vaccine has received WHO Emergency Use Listing but requires countries to be able to store and distribute doses at minus 70 degrees Celsius.
“To access an initial limited volume of Pfizer vaccine, countries were invited to submit proposals. Thirteen African countries submitted proposals and were evaluated by a multi-agency committee based on current mortality rates, new cases and trends, and the capacity to handle the ultra-cold chain needs of the vaccine.
“This announcement allows countries to fine-tune their planning for COVID-19 immunisation campaigns. We urge African nations to ramp up readiness and finalise their national vaccine deployment plans. Regulatory processes, cold chain systems and distribution plans need to be in place to ensure vaccines are safely expedited from ports of entry to delivery. We can’t afford to waste a single dose.”
The Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Prof Babatunde Salako, had told this newspaper that there is not enough space at the moment to store the Pfizer vaccines at that temperature.
But the Executive Director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Dr Faisal Shuaib, had described the report as fake, saying Nigeria had the capacity to store the vaccines and had taken journalists on a tour of its facility in Abuja.
Nigeria was expected to be on the list of African countries to receive the first set of Pfizer vaccines because of its rate of infection which is now the sixth-highest on the continent.
Only South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Ethiopia have higher infection rates than Nigeria. But Morocco and Egypt have already independently obtained vaccines and begun distribution while South Africa, which has the highest burden of the disease in Africa, has already procured one million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, produced in India but has yet to begin distribution.
Nigeria has, however, received no COVID-19 vaccine even as its rate of infection has continued to surge.
Unlike the other vaccines on the market, the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, which has the highest WHO rating, is expected to be stored at 70 degrees Celsius which Nigeria could not meet.
However, the WHO regional director said countries that failed to make the Pfizer list could get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine later in the month although it has not yet been endorsed by the health organisation.
Moeti said, “Nearly 90 million of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could start arriving on the continent later this month. This is subject to the WHO listing the vaccine for emergency use. The review is ongoing and its outcome is expected very soon.”
The WHO director said it was time for African countries to up their game in the rollout of vaccines.
She said the initial phase of 90 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines would support countries to immunise three per cent of the African population most in need of protection, including health workers and other vulnerable groups in the first half of 2021.
“As production capacity increases and more vaccines become available, the aim is to vaccinate at least 20 per cent of Africans by providing up to 600 million doses by the end of 2021,” Moeti said.
To complement COVAX efforts, the African Union has secured 670 million vaccine doses for the continent which will be distributed in 2021 and 2022 as countries secure adequate financing. The African Export-Import Bank will facilitate payments by providing advance procurement commitment guarantees of up to $2bn to the manufacturers on behalf of countries.
Since the AU will distribute vaccines based on population, Nigeria is expected to receive the highest shipment. However, no date has been announced for the distribution.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government has said that the decision to have the President, Vice President, and governors as the first set of people to take the COVID-19 vaccine is to puncture the conspiracy theories going round about the safety of COVID-19 vaccine.
The government also said that it would do a lot of enlightenment campaigns to neutralise the effect of the conspiracy theories and remove fear from the people’s minds.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who stated these in an interview in Abuja, pleaded with religious leaders, political leaders and elites to join in assuring their followers that the government would not introduce unsafe vaccines.
According to him, the government has set the target of vaccinating at least 70 per cent of Nigerians in the next two years, as vaccines remain the only sure way to protect the people.
He, however, blamed the non-adherence to COVID-19 protocols for the recent surge in the number of cases in the country.
Mohammed said, “As of today, the government is busy trying to ramp up the vaccine and the government is talking to COVAX and various organisations in the world so that in the next two years, I think, 70 per cent of Nigerians would have been vaccinated.
“It would be such a tragedy if, after all the efforts and logistics, the vaccines are here and then some people are dissuading Nigerians not to take the vaccine either because of their past unpleasant experiences or because of some very unscientific conspiracies.
“The crux of the matter is that many Nigerians still live in denial. They don’t believe there is COVID-19. And for many of them, when we announce that so many people have tested positive and so many have died, these things just remain as figures and numbers until when those who are close to them are victims that they begin to realise that this is a serious matter.
“This is why every successful and celebrated Nigerian who has gone through this and has come out of it has shared their experience and I say this is not a joke. In the first instance, we don’t have the health infrastructure to support this kind of total recklessness on the part of Nigerians.
“On the conspiracy theories on the part of Nigerians, more than the vaccines, we need Nigerians to understand that the non-pharmaceutical intervention is still the most effective way of interrupting and slowing down the infection in Nigeria and consequently slowing down the mortality rate.
“It is already said that the President, the Vice President and the governors will be the first to take these vaccines to convince everybody that these vaccines are safe. We know that ahead of the vaccines, we must also mount a very vigorous enlightenment campaign to neutralise the effect of all these conspiracies to even assuage the fears of some people who have had some not too pleasant experiences in the past from certain vaccines. But the situation here is completely different.
“We know those who can convince their followers easily, especially religious leaders. We are also going to use our celebrities in the TV industry and sports to push this campaign.”