What 2021 has in store for Covid-19

Monday, January 4th, 2021 00:00 |
Covid vaccine. Illustration/Michael Mosota

 Michael Mosota

Ever since the coronavirus spilled from Wuhan in China and spread across the world, people have held onto hope that life soon returns to normal.

A year later, the virus continues to spread fast, and in some countries such as the UK, a new strain of the virus has been report-ed.

In countries such as Kenya, movement restrictions have eased while for others intermittent lockdowns are the new normal.

Experts are constructing short term and long-term scenarios of the spread and impact of Covid-19.

Amid uncertainty of what the future holds, experts agree on few things: Covid-19 will be around for a long haul and safe and effective vaccines will have a huge role to play in facilitating return to normal life.

“The future will depend a lot on how seriously we observe preventative measures,” says Dr Githinji Gitahi, CEO, Amref Health Africa.

Evidence from countries that have effectively combated Covid-19 such as Taiwan shows behavioral changes such as wearing masks can reduce the virus spread.

With heightened movements during the festive period and laxity on ob-serving safety precautions there is likely to be a spike in infections this month ac-cording to Githinji.

He notes that the best way the country can prepare for a surge in cases earlier in the year is by strengthening health system including motivating heath workforce and availing crucial medical supplies such as oxygen.

In the long term, vaccines offer prom-ise of containing the pandemic. In the beginning of December, the fi rst people were vaccinated in UK after the Pfi zer/BioNtech vaccine was approved for emergency use in the country.

While vac-cinations are ongoing in the US after the country approved Pfi zer/ BioNtech and Moderna vaccines, in Kenya and other developing countries however, it could take months before the vaccine is avail-able to majority of the populations.

“Kenya is a member of Covax, an ini-tiative by Gavi and World Health Organ-isation that has negotiated vaccine doses to ensure equitable access especially to developing countries,” says Githinji.

Once the vaccine is available in the country it will be distributed in two phases.

The elderly, health workers, teachers, uniformed forces and those with chronic conditions will receive priority during dis-tribution of the vaccine.

Already there are concerns that developing countries may miss out   on vaccines for years due to distribution systems.

According to People’s Vaccines Alliance, nine out of 10 people in poor countries will miss out on vaccinations for the next one year.

Campaigners warn that deals made by rich countries will delay and deny access to vaccines to other parts of the world.

Rich countries, accounting for 14 per cent of the world’s population, have already bought 53 per cent of most promising vaccine so far.

“No one should be blocked from get-ting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket.

But unless something changes dramatically, bil-lions around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come,” said Anna Marriot, Health Policy Manager, Oxfam in a state-ment.

Distribution of the two approved vac-cines pose logistical challenges to Af-rica. Pfi zer vaccine has extreme cooling conditions requirements at -70 degrees Celsius, making it challenging for de-ployment on the continent, where facili-ties for such low temperature may not be available, says Dr David Ishola, Associate Professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Additionally prices of both vaccines are high and thus may be unaffordable for most developing coun-tries.

“The average cost may range at Sh1,000 per dose. Since two doses are required, it means the country will incur billions of shillings to vaccinate a fraction of the population,” says Githinji.

Conversely, the Oxford University/Astazeneca vaccine, which has been approved and is set to be rolled out to-day (Jan 4), can be stored under normal fridge temperatures of -2 to -8 degrees Celsius and is cheaper hence more suit-able for Africa.

Ishola, a clinical trials researcher, notes that due to routine childhood vacci-nations, Africa has cooling facilities suit-able for the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine.

Kenya is among countries where there are ongoing clinical trials for the vaccine, which is yet to receive regulatory approv-als for emergency use like Pfizer and Moderna.

Manufacturers have indicated that 64 per cent of the Oxford/Astrazen-eca vaccine will go to developing countries with a dose estimated to cost about Sh500.

Supplies for vaccines are likely to mainly benefi t the rich countries and Ishola notes that the best bet for ensuring access in the continent is through the Covax.

Covax aims to deliver at least two billion doses to cover up to 20 per cent of populations in vulnerable countries mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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