KAMPALA, Uganda — Urgent calls for COVID-19 vaccine fairness rang through African countries on Friday as more welcomed or rolled out doses from the global COVAX initiative, with officials acutely aware their continent needs much more.
"Rich countries should not be so selfish," Pontiano Kaleebu, head of the Uganda Virus Research Institute, said as his country prepared to receive its first doses. "It's a concern, and everyone is talking about it."
The East African nation of 45 million people was seeing the arrival of under 1 million vaccine doses — 864,000. It's the first batch of a total of 18 million COVAX doses for Uganda, but when all will arrive is not known.
That number is "not going to do much," said Monica Musenero, an epidemiologist and presidential adviser, though she added that "we can advocate for more vaccines, but we should also appreciate what we've got."
She urged Africa's 54 countries to devote more resources, however limited, to secure more doses: "As a bloc we should organize ourselves … instead of sitting there to cry."
The foundation of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah, on Friday issued a statement saying that "more must be done, immediately, to ensure lower-income countries have faster access to COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostic tools and treatments." It noted that a small number of rich countries hold the majority of vaccine doses.
"This is not a time for selfishness," the statement said, and it noted growing calls for a waiver of intellectual property rights to COVID-19 vaccines to allow for faster, wider production — a proposal opposed by the European Union and countries including the United States, Britain and Canada.
While the COVAX initiative was created to ensure that low- and middle-income countries receive COVID-19 vaccines, it has faced delays and limited supply.
Even as the World Health Organization's Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, on Thursday noted that almost 10 million COVAX doses had been delivered to 11 African countries, she could not resist adding, "finally."
She added, "we expect about half of African countries will receive COVAX deliveries in the coming week and that most countries will have vaccination programs under way by end of March."
The goal is that countries will be able to vaccinate 20% of their population with the COVAX doses by the end of this year — far from the goal of 60% or more to achieve so-called "herd immunity" when enough people are protected through infection or vaccination to make it difficult for a virus to continue to spread.
"You expect that at this point we should be getting the initial 9 million doses from COVAX" instead of less than 1 million, said Misaki Wayengera, head of a technical committee advising Uganda's response. He worries that delays in vaccine procurement mean several months could pass before some people receive the second required shot.
Uganda aims to vaccinate 20% of its population with doses from COVAX, with 40% vaccinated via government and private-sector funding.
The COVAX delays have pushed other African countries to seek more doses elsewhere, including via bilateral deals that can be unfavorable.
Uganda has announced plans to buy 18 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India, but the country faces cash shortages.
And it is not clear how much the doses will cost. Some critics have been appalled by lower-income countries paying more per COVID-19 vaccine dose than rich ones.
One WHO official in Africa, Richard Mihigo, on Thursday discouraged African countries from bilateral deals because of the risk of paying a high price. The African Union instead is pursuing bulk deals for the continent, but that also has faced delays.