At least 9 African countries set to produce COVID vaccines, Africa’s CDC chief says

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>At least 9 African countries set to produce COVID vaccines, Africa’s CDC chief says

Despite Africa's low vaccination rates, the continent's early, robust response has helped mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the continent so far, says Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he predicts many more vaccines will be available in 2022, with a strong emphasis on distribution.

The WorldJanuary 5, 2022 · 4:45 PM EST

A man gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at a site near Johannesburg, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. 

Denis Farrell/AP

As omicron continues to make its impact across the globe, scientists in Africa are rapidly learning more about the new coronavirus variant. Omicron was first identified in southern Africa in November.

Dr. John Nkengasong, the director of Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The World's host Carol Hills that so far in South Africa, omicron cases have quickly peaked and declined, with fewer hospitalizations than variants like delta.  

"We see omicron as a virus that transmits very, very quickly. But then the severity in South Africa has not been comparable to what we saw with the delta variant," he said. 

Related: Africa must invest 'in human capital' to fight the coronavirus, Africa CDC director says

Africa remains the world’s least vaccinated continent against COVID-19, with about 10% of the continent’s population fully vaccinated. Only seven African countries have met the global target of vaccinating 40% of their populations against COVID-19 by the end of 2021. 

However, Nkengasong said Africa's political leadership mounted a "very robust response" early on in the pandemic and that this "extraordinary coordination and collaboration" has helped to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in Africa.

Over the last two years, leaders have met to discuss and review pandemic preparedness and response at least 16 times, he said.

Nkengasong joined the The World to discuss several lessons learned so far from studying omicron in southern Africa, as well as from managing the HIV/AIDS pandemic. 

Carol Hills: Dr. Nkengasong, scientists predicted that the African continent will be much harder hit by COVID-19, with tens of millions of infections and several million deaths. That hasn't happened — which is good. But why has the impact been so different than it was predicted?Dr. John Nkengasong: It is very obvious that through the extraordinary coordination and collaboration that the political leadership of the continent exercised very early on, they were able to mount a very robust response. And just to substantiate that — the political leadership of the continent has met at least 16 times to review the actions and coordinate their efforts and discuss the pandemic — that is highly unusual. In my over three decades experience in public health, we have not seen that. 

Related: From Congo to Chile, small labs are playing a growing role in global understanding of COVID 

What other factors do you think need to be studied about why Africa didn't see the infections and death levels that were expected, despite the low vaccination rate?From a scientific perspective, there are several parameters that we need to study in Africa. One is, what are existing immune responses contributing to a less severe outcome? Second, are we counting everybody that has been infected? And have we counted all the deaths? We just concluded a study and we saw that in some countries, the number of people that have been exposed to the virus is significantly higher than what has been reported, but it has not necessarily translated to the number of deaths on the continent, for sure. So then, the research question that we have to resolve is, why has the increased number of exposures on the continent not led to deaths like we saw in India, how devastating the virus was in India — you couldn't hide the deaths, right? But we have not seen that scenario in Africa. We also have to begin to look at the interreaction between existing infections like malaria and even other coronaviruses that cause the common cold in Africa, and if they have led to the production of certain antibodies that can prevent or slow the severity of these diseases. So, a lot that needs to be studied. There are several working groups and research centers across the continent that are looking into this. I know you've written about the lack of biotech and manufacturing in Africa, and the continent's dependance globally for supplies of vaccines. What steps are being done to change that?A lot has happened and continues to happen in the course of this pandemic. The heads of states came together and launched a program called Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing. And through that partnership, at least nine countries on the continent have engaged in the pathway for producing vaccines, including South Africa, Rwanda, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Egypt. Egypt, for example, is already producing about 3.5 million doses of vaccines. We know that South Africa is now producing vaccines. So I think you'll continue to see that the landscape will change significantly in 2022. 

Related: COVID-19 vaccines produced in Africa move forward 

I want to get back to vaccine access because it's such a front-and-center issue. With 10% of the African continent fully vaccinated, what needs to happen to improve access to vaccines?In 2022, you'll see many more vaccines arrive in the continent, so we have to shift our emphasis on making sure that vaccines that arrive at the airports are actually getting into the arms of people who need it. And that will require that we focus on such capacity for workforce, such capacity for logistics, such capacity for distribution to the last mile, and such capacity to engage the communities. So, those are the key areas that we need to focus on now to increase our uptake of vaccines from the 10% to about over 70% — or more. President Joe Biden has announced that he intends to nominate you to lead the US president's emergency plan for AIDS relief, known as PEPFAR. Can you speak to how the response to HIV in Africa and worldwide has helped inform the response to COVID? I think it is important to know that we are dealing with two pandemics across the world. The HIV/AIDS pandemic and COVID[-19] is a pandemic that has just emerged over the last two years. And very unfortunately, and very concerning, is the interreaction of the two pandemics. We now know that people infected with HIV tend to not clear the virus, that is, the COVID-19 virus, appropriately, especially if they have not been fully treated — and that has the risk of creating variants. We don't know what the trajectory for COVID[-19] will look like in the coming years, but we know that HIV has been with us for 40 years [and] has killed almost 37 million people. Tremendous gains have been made in the fight against HIV, especially in Africa. But we should be mindful of what COVID[-19] can do to erode the significant progress that we have made in achieving remarkable progress in controlling HIV/AIDS over the years.Do you have any predictions or sense of how omicron is going to make its way through the world and its behavior and longevity, based on what happened in Africa? Or is simply more research needed? I think it's interesting to take a close look at how the trajectory of omicron has been in South Africa. Omicron came in very quickly. We saw it in South Africa rise very sharply to the peak and then decline very quickly. If you compare that to the delta variant, when it first hit South Africa, for example, it took several weeks to peak and then it took several weeks to to begin to decline — which is not the case of omicron. We see omicron as a virus that transmits very, very quickly. But then the severity in South Africa has not been comparable to what we saw with the delta variant. We are truly grateful for that because if the virus had transmitted that quickly and it led to a severity of cases, then it would have been overwhelming completely across southern Africa, and across the world, just because it has now spread across the entire world. So, we continue to learn more about omicron, what we call the pathogenesis and the clinical spectrum of omicron. For example, is it infecting children more? For example, would it lead to long COVID? And what does that mean in terms of the dynamics between omicron and delta variants in South Africa and the world? So there's a lot to be learned from the omicron virus, but at least the early lessons that have emerged is the less severity in terms of clinical outcomes and hospitalization of the omicron variant. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

‘American exceptionalism’: EU travel bans show US is abdicating global leadership, former CDC head says

'American exceptionalism': EU travel bans show US is abdicating global leadership, former CDC head says

The European Union is set to reopen its borders starting July 1. Right now, the bloc is still deciding who it wants to let in, and it does not look like people from the US will be among them. 

By
The World staff

Producer
Christopher Woolf

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

A member of a ground crew walks past American Airlines planes parked at the gate during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, April 5, 2020.

Credit:

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Share

As countries around the globe start to reopen, the big question is how to do it safely. 

The European Union is set to reopen its borders starting July 1. Visitors from the US and Russia are among those that are restricted from entering Europe, The New York Times reported on Friday.

Earlier reporting this week from The New York Times that alluded to that prompted Dr. Tom Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to tweet, “This is not what American exceptionalism is supposed to mean.” 

This is not what American exceptionalism is supposed to mean. Until the US gets control of this virus, we will face barriers to travel and economic recovery. https://t.co/et7Dn7tdcC

— Dr. Tom Frieden (@DrTomFrieden) June 23, 2020

Frieden headed the CDC from 2009 to 2017. He’s now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, which focuses on preventing deaths from cardiovascular disease in low- and middle-income countries. Frieden joined The World’s host Marco Werman from New York to talk about the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. 

Related: Nicholas Burns: US’ ‘unusual absence’ from world stage is bad for Americans

Marco Werman: Dr. Frieden, an interesting way to frame American exceptionalism. What did you mean in your tweet when you said that this is not what that’s supposed to mean? 

Tom Frieden: Well, there’s debate about what American exceptionalism is and different visions of it. But it was never supposed to mean that we continue to have tens of thousands of cases of COVID-19 disease every single day while Europe has essentially beaten the curve, and countries around the world are doing much better than we are. The key point here is that it’s not a question of health versus economics. The only way we’re going to get our economy back is to be guided by and fully support public health, so we can keep COVID-19 in its place and we can have more space in society. 

What do you make of the fact that this list puts the US in the same company as Russia and Brazil? Does that mean the US, Brazil and Russia, we’re all at the bottom of the barrel? 

There are a lot of countries that aren’t doing a good job, and there are a fair number of countries that are doing a really good job. I think the key is for us to continuously improve our response. We have great health departments around the country. We have very committed public health professionals. Congress has provided substantial resources. Now, we need to scale up our programs and show that we, too, can turn the tide and make huge progress against this pandemic. 

In parts of this country, we’ve done it. If you look at New York, New Jersey, many other places in the US, we have seen a huge decrease in cases. Now, we have to keep that up so we don’t have large spikes. We know there are going to be clusters. That’s inevitable. That’s why we need really good public health systems to find those clusters early and stop them before they become outbreaks. That’s what has to happen for us to be safer and for us to get our economy back. 

When you speak with colleagues overseas dealing with the pandemic, what do they say about how the US has handled the crisis? 

I get emails and text messages from all over the world just kind of shaking their head. What is happening? Why has the US response been so ineffective? Why isn’t contact tracing scaled up? Why in the world has mask-wearing become a political statement in some places and for some people? I would say there’s a kind of sadness and disbelief when people look at what’s happening in the US now.

The US has for decades been a leader in global health. And now it’s seen — unfortunately, accurately — as a laggard. I point out the need for federal leadership. I point out that public health has not failed in this pandemic. What has failed is the politicians’ willingness to listen to public health advice and be guided by and support public health, because everywhere in the world where that is done, their communities do better. Fewer deaths and less economic destruction and devastation. 

How do you think the US handling of the pandemic is changing the way this country is seen around the world?

Well, I think it’s done a lot of damage to our reputation as a leader, to our reputation as a country that could not only handle things here, but be relied on globally. When I think back to Ebola, the US led the global charge to protect the countries of West Africa and stop the epidemic there successfully. Now, the US is really not in that role.

Saying that we’re going to leave WHO in the middle of a pandemic is not a sensible thing to do. Certainly, WHO needs to be better, but they’re essential. And turning our backs on them is not going to help at this time. The US has a wonderful history of pragmatic, effective public health and political leadership. And if we get back to that, we can control this pandemic and the next one that comes along as well. 

I mean, you look at China, they recently had a cluster of more than 150 new COVID cases in Beijing. Officials sealed off neighborhoods, they launched a mass testing campaign, imposed travel restrictions. In the meantime, here in the US, we’re getting reports that President Donald Trump wants to close 13 federally run testing centers just as infections are spiking in several states. Again, maybe the answer is obvious, but how does the US emerge from this and get on the list of responsible countries?

If we do the right thing, we’ll get on the right list. I got an email this morning from a colleague in Australia. Incredibly impressive. They’ve got a cluster. They’re ramping up testing. They’re doing very intensive work. And really, the tale of two countries is the United States and South Korea. We’ve both had our first cases on Jan. 20.

If you had moved from the US to South Korea on that date, you would have been 70 times less likely to get killed by COVID-19. And these days, Korea is having 30 cases a day and they’re really concerned about it. They’re ramping up their efforts to clamp down on the virus. We have 30,000 cases, and there’s still debate about whether people should wear masks. It’s a little mind-boggling. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.