Africa’s response towards COVID-19 was mixed, with some countries moving faster than others. South Africa started on a slow pace, with the first case being announced on 1st of March 2020. The country responded with lockdown restrictions 26 days later. This slow reaction was worsened by the public’s beliefs in myths and half-truths about the virus. Unfortunately, social media made a bad situation worse by rapidly spreading conspiracy theories and fear, making some factions of the public reluctant to adhere to government directives. In response to this, South Africa implemented a state of emergency. Consequently, the initial national lockdown regulations helped to “flatten the curve.” However, the nation was in tranquil at the end of the year, not willing to enjoy the festive season while wearing masks. As projected, the country was hit by a second wave after the holidays.
On Vaccines and New Variants
The second wave introduced new variants of the virus across the globe. These variants have a proven ability to spread fast, infecting large numbers of people. The worst potential challenge and consequence of COVID-19 virus variants is the ability to evade natural and/or vaccine-induced immunity. This can lead to immune pressure that will ultimately select for escape mutants of the virus as already reported by SARS-CoV-2 investigators in Italy and South Africa.
Global efforts in the development of vaccines are underway. Researchers are currently testing 70 vaccines in clinical trials on humans. The vaccination efforts are in anticipation of a herd immunity. However, conspiracy theories spreading across Africa will significantly hamper the initiatives impelled by the African Union and COVAX, a global collaboration that aims to provide innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
Africa realized the importance of vaccination when the second COVID-19 wave hit South African shores, resulting in a case fatality rate of 2.6% in the continent, exceeding the global case fatality rate of 2.2%. This created a sense of urgency for a vaccine. However, Africa should not be deceived by variations observed in SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks in the continent. The region should intensify efforts beyond acquisition of the vaccine and work towards increasing research, investments and adoption, despite the ongoing spread of disinformation.
Ultimately, concerted vaccination efforts are imperative in curbing the pandemic. The adage “no one is safe until everyone is safe” is essentially true. Although more than 190 countries have pledged to obtain vaccines through COVAX, many of them are also negotiating with drug companies or belong to multinational groups that are bargaining for vaccines. This threatens to drive up prices and delay vaccines delivery through COVAX, leaving poorer regions vulnerable.
The Safety Factor
The assurance of vaccine safety is demonstrated by the millions of people in the United States that have already received COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccines have undergone the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history. The efficacy of the currently approved six vaccines range from 50.38% to 95%, and some companies are advancing in generating vaccine versions against threatening variants, in particular, the South African variant.
Approved vaccines are not likely to cause COVID-19 infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after vaccination, there may be side effects such as chills or tiredness. These may affect your ability to do daily activities, however, they are normal signs that your body is building protection, and the side effects should go away in a few days.
This pandemic has tested the agility of African countries on policy responses to effectively handle a public health catastrophe. The test led to production of great innovation across Africa, such as the development of immune-based diagnostic tests, e-commerce solutions, use of drones to deliver samples to testing sites, data modelling for accurate infection counts as well as a web-based dashboards to share real-time updates on the pandemic. Nonetheless, there are significant limitations. Multi-sectoral efforts from science, education, medical, technological, communication, business and industry sectors, are required in order to win the battle against coronavirus.
African leaders need to be assertive in their response to the pandemic in order to ensure adoption of the vaccines. They need to tap into local expertise and harness demonstrated capability and talent to join up with front runners in vaccines development. There is a need for a decisive leadership that stands on sound and contextual scientific, economic, and social advice and not political convenience.
Dr. Hazel Mufhandu is a Medical Virologist currently working as a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Subject Group Leader of Microbiology Department at North-West University, South Africa. You can reach her at: Hazel.Mufhandu@nwu.ac.za