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Expert urges Africa to invest in vaccine development

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With over two million recorded cases of COVID-19 and some 60,000 deaths, one of Africa’s leading Genomics and virology scholars has called for the urgent need for a regional-based vaccine development programme to save the continent from the recurrent scourge of viral attacks.

Richard Lessells, a leading scholar and researcher in genomic surveillance at the Kwa-Zulu Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in South Africa, in a Wednesday interview with PREMIUM TIMES, said it is not sustainable for Africa’s 1.3 billion citizens to continue investing its wellness on the generosity of foreign vaccines manufacturers, a practice that always leaves the continent at the rear, not the front view of progress.

Mr Lessells’ call came against the background of the current distribution strategy where many of the advanced countries of the west have fashioned out an answer for their citizens leaving Africa to depend mainly on an arrangement by COVAX, a trailblazing global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.

COVAX is co-led by the WHO, Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

Under the COVAX mechanism, poorer countries get the vaccines free while the middle-income countries get the vaccines at subsidized rates compared to buying directly from the pharmaceutical companies. The current pricing rate, as revealed by Belgium’s Budget State Secretary, Eva De Bleeker, in a post she made on Twitter but later deleted, showed $2.18 to $18 with Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna at both ends of the slide.

“The challenges of fair and equitable distribution of vaccines are real. We have not built the capacity to develop and manufacture vaccines on the continent,” Mr Lessells said stressing that, “if we (Africa) want to make sure that we are first on the queue, we need to develop and manufacture these vaccines here and make them at scale so that we are leading the way other than relying on other countries of the world.”

Mr. Lessells recognizes that, although difficult, this vision is realisable “and is only a matter of building on already existing scientific knowledge and capacity as well as financial commitment, political will and collaboration across the continent.” He said the African Union and Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have the big role of coordinating this initiative if Africa must realize it.

The Kwa-Zulu Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) where Mr Lessells works in the coastal city of Durban in South Africa is one of the three regional repository centres charged by the WHO with the responsibility of establishing a continental virus sequence repository, prepare and validate test kits, support laboratory accreditation and quality assurance processes among others.

A KRISP team led by Mr Lessells recently identified a new variant of the coronavirus in South Africa. This variant is observed to have multiple mutations more than other variants (more than 20 mutations). There are concerns on whether this mutation is responsible for the more efficient transmission from one person to another as cases continue to rise.

According to him, “we noticed that there was this new variant that was rapidly taking over all other forms of the virus and we have seen it become dominant in the patients that are being diagnosed with COVID-19 for the last few weeks.”

This variant was found to be dominant in Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. However, more samples are being sequenced to find out if it has spread to other parts of South Africa.

He went further to say that the continent “became too relaxed and complacent when cases and deaths started reducing, too many people had the sense that everything is finished, and the virus had gone away.”

“Now it is clear that, that was a very dangerous understanding and what we should have done when we came out of that first peak was to really work much harder to suppress the transmission in the community to delay or stop the second wave from happening,” he said.

South Africa’s COVID-19 cases have continued to increase and with the identification of this new variant, countries including Germany and the UK have placed a travel ban on South Africa. The Financial Times is also reporting that this variant of the virus in South Africa has been identified in the UK.

“Two cases of the 501.V2 strain, which has caused a recent surge of Covid-19 infections in South Africa, have been identified in contacts of people who arrived from the country in the past fortnight, Matt Hancock, UK health secretary said on Wednesday.”

“However, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention held an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the 501.V2 variant, which emerged in Nelson Mandela Bay in Eastern Cape, in the south of the country. It concluded that there was no immediate need to restrict trade or travel across the continent, largely because the majority of African countries already require a negative Covid-19 test before entry.”

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