Africa needs a billion Covid vaccines, but supply is slowing down

Has Africa taken its foot off the pedal in the race to secure enough Covid-19 vaccines for all? 

Data collected by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) shows an alarming drop-off in shipments arriving across the continent since the start of 2022, yet the only factory that produces vaccine shots locally is in danger of closing down. 

There are other plants capable of producing Covid-19 vaccines currently in the works on the continent and, as Benjamin Kagina writes at The Conversation, this is encouraging and marks a turnaround for thinking about local production.  

The challenge for Aspen’s plant — and any other that opens — is twofold. According to a statement released by Gavi, the vaccine alliance that coordinates the Covax programme through which most vaccines in Africa are procured, demand for Covid-19 vaccines has dropped off to the point where it is not placing any large orders. Gavi’s head, Dr Seth Berkley, tweeted that although Aspen’s plant is important, we “have to tackle reduced demand. We won’t be safe anywhere until we’re safe everywhere”.

On top of that, Gavi said it’s up to Johnson & Johnson to decide where orders are procured. 

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa warned the second Global Covid-19 Summit that local manufacturing capabilities would vanish unless “multilateral agencies and philanthropists [procure] vaccines and boosters from African manufacturers to ensure the developing capabilities on the continent”.

So what has happened to demand for vaccines?  As winter kicked in over the course of April, South Africa saw a general increase in the number of Covid-19 cases reported every day. iIt looks a lot like a fifth wave

This went from 1 692 on 1 April to 6 372 by the last Wednesday of that month. No doubt the increase was spurred by the easing of restrictions and the many public holidays, but the rise in cases hasn’t (yet) been accompanied by a severe increase in hospital admissions or deaths. 

A screenshot from the Africa Data Hub (ADH) Resurgence Map showing how the number of new Covid-19 deaths no longer matches the number of new cases in the fourth wave of Covid-19 cases. We wait to see if the fifth wave will have a better or similar recovery rate. Will the recovery rate worsen if people remain unvaccinated or don’t follow up with booster doses?

According to official statistics from the government, somewhere in the region of a third of the South African population has received at least one vaccine to protect against Covid-19, but the number of people turning up to be jabbed has fallen from a peak of over a million a week in August 2021 to just 40 432 in mid-April. 

Unicef has been collecting data about vaccine procurement around the world in its Covid-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard, and its numbers suggest South Africa is not at all unusual when compared with its neighbours. The data is not perfect: it is gathered from public sources rather than directly from health departments, and only tracks deliveries of vaccines, rather than individuals vaccinated. The ratio of vaccines to vaccinated will probably vary greatly depending on the type of vaccine and domestic distribution problems. 

Nevertheless, it’s a good starting place for investigation, and ADH’s partners at Media Hack have already used this dataset to establish that African countries seem to have paid more for vaccines than other countries.

Unicef’s data shows that although South Africa was quick off the mark procuring large quantities of vaccine by mid-2021, out of 45 countries tracked in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa comes almost dead middle for doses received per capita (20th), with enough supply for about 36% of the population. 

Small countries such as Seychelle, Mauritius and Cabo Verde naturally top the list, because procuring small batches of vaccines is relatively straight forward. But Rwanda, Uganda, Angola and Ghana have all received enough vaccines to inoculate more than 40% of their populations.

By comparison, deliveries in, say, France, have remained high. The chart below shows monthly deliveries in France and Nigeria as an absolute number. Bear in mind Nigeria has three times the population.

The ADH’s methodology in establishing vaccines per capita is a little rough. Some vaccines require one dose per person, but 30% of shots delivered to the continent are the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (of the type produced at Gqeberha), which requires only one dose. 

In addition, average ages in African countries are low: in some cases as much as 50% of the population is under 15 and generally receive a lower dose, if at all. Using population estimates from World Population Review, a number of 1.5 doses per person is being used as an estimate for the amount of vaccine required for full coverage, a number that also accounts for wastage.

Using this very rough calculation, enough vaccines have been delivered to protect just over 29% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa. Not bad, but way below the worldwide total of 69% reported by Our World in Data (OWID). Without taking into account booster shots, that means that a conservative estimate is that the continent needs another billion or so doses to vaccinate everyone against Covid-19.

Where do the doses come from?

The chart below shows deliveries from all manufacturers, especially Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Sinopharm ramped up rapidly from 30 million doses in September last year to a peak of 116 million doses in December, but then dropped just as rapidly. In March 2022, just under 25 million doses arrived on the continent, about the same as July last year.

Africa’s taste for J&J should, in theory, be good news for Gqeberha. But how were these doses procured? Many countries have sourced vaccines from multiple suppliers through multiple agreements. 

Unicef categorises deliveries as sourced through direct deals, the Covax network,  the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust or as donations. The importance of Covax is illustrated in the chart below, which shows the ratio of vaccine deliveries in each country by procurement source. 

Only South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mauritius appear to have gone their own way by sourcing more than a quarter of vaccines through individual agreements, with the rest of the continent receiving vaccine donations or working through collective routes. Donations are a significant source in some countries, but certainly not overwhelming.

A similar illustration shows the dominance of the J&J vaccine (the type manufactured in Gqeberha). It also highlights the importance of China as a supplier as well as Western companies. 

Although Unicef’s data cannot be verified, it suggests two things. One, the pace of vaccination orders has slowed in an alarming fashion. Two, Africa needs at least a billion more doses — and if it orders them locally it would be a massive shot in the arm for the local pharmaceutical industry.

For up to date information on the status of vaccination across Africa, check out Africa Data Hub’s Vaccine Tracker.

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Adam Oxford
Adam Oxford is a data journalist, trainer and consultant at Area of Effect. He regularly works with OpenUP and the Africa Data Hub to help familiarise journalists with data storytelling, and coaches news startups in sustainable product development and data-driven decision-making.

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