An increase in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the new Omicron variant has amplified the call for booster shots, but the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) says it will recommend an extra dose only for people older than 60 years.
Omicron, first identified in Southern Africa, but since discovered in at least 20 other countries, poses a “very high” risk, according to a warning issued by the World Health Organisation.
Affluent countries are rushing to get booster shots for the new variant, with some companies saying it will be ready by March 2022.
But where does this leave Africa?
The question of boosters should be guided by good science, according to Cameroonian virologist Dr John Nkengasong, who is the director of Africa CDC, the continent’s public health agency.
“In Africa, people above the age of 60 years and the immunocompromised should be the ones getting their boosters and that’s where I will limit it. Because we clearly see that, depending on the vaccine type, you get a reduction in neutralising antibodies after six months,” Nkengasong said.
He said he would not recommend general booster vaccines for younger people yet, but did not specify why: “We will continue to observe the science and use the science to drive the booster issue.”
Booster shots raise antibody levels and strengthen the body’s defences against infection.
The Mail & Guardian recently reported that the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority had received an application from Pfizer to have booster shots administered in the country. South Africans who have been vaccinated with the two-dose Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine might soon be able to get a third dose as a booster shot.
Nkengasong said the clinical spectrum was unknown at the moment and Africa CDC could not say how the Omicron variant would affect people with comorbidities and children.
“Answers on the clinical spectrum will come from South Africa, because of the large number of cases that are there and each new case needs to be compared to existing data,” he said.
“The vaccines will not be 80% effective against the omicron variant but they will not not be effective.”
The continent has not yet reached herd immunity, although vaccines have been flowing into Africa in a very predictable and steady manner, said Nkengasong, expressing concern about vaccine uptake.
“The uptake is not as we would have loved to see. We’ve gone back to the drawing board, putting our heads together to see what can be done to galvanise that uptake,” he said.
Only 7% of the African population is fully inoculated.