Nigeria has received the largest single shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the WHO global COVAX initiative to date – with initial delivery of some 3.92 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines out of a total of 16 million doses that have been allocated to the country through the platform for the first phase of distribution.
But the fact that Nigeria, a country of 201 million people – will only receive some 16 million vaccine doses through the global platform – enough to vaccinate roughly 4% of the population in the first stages – highlights the huge discrepancy between the aims of the global initiative and reality.
Even so, the delivery of the first packages on Tuesday allowed Nigerian government officials to breathe a sigh of relief – after mounting pressure from media and the Nigerian public – to produce a timeline for the vaccine rollout.
In January, the country experienced its biggest surge to date of COVID-19 cases to date, peaking at the end of the month. Cases have dropped sharply since then, however, with a total of 1,923 deaths to date, and eight new deaths on Tuesday.
Said Dr Walter Kazadi Mulombo, WHO Representative in Nigeria: “Vaccines are a critical new tool in the battle against COVID-19; therefore, this is a step in the right direction. These vaccines have undergone rigorous regulatory processes at global and country level and have been deemed safe and effective.”
According to data released by COVAX, only India and Pakistan are receiving more COVID-19 vaccine doses from COVAX than Nigeria – and it was not surprising that Nigeria received the largest doses from the platform shipped yet.
About 15 minutes before noon, an Emirates Air Boeing 777-300ER, landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja with doses of the vaccine produced by the Serum Institute in India. The first consignment package was officially received by the Chair of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha. Mustapha then handed over the package to the country’s Health minister, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, who presented it to the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
On Friday, a vaccination event will be held at the National Hospital Abuja’s COVID-19 treatment centre—the first site for the commencement of vaccination of frontline health workers and support staff.
While the COVAX deliveries to Nigeria remain woefully short of needs, the country is relying on the African Union’s African Vaccination Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) platform to secure more doses for the country. The AU has pre-ordered over 700 million doses of vaccine for the continent’s member states in collaboration with Africa Centres for Disease Control.
Earlier in February 2021, Ehanire projected that Nigeria will be able to secure vaccine doses for about 45% of its citizens in 2021 – through acquisition of some 42 million more doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine through the AVATT platform.
“Nigeria subscribes to this whole-of-Africa approach, that strives to ensure that we are safe and our neighbours are safe,” Ehanire told a press briefing. “We shall be offered over 42 million doses by AVATT. If all the projected vaccines are supplied, we estimate we should have covered over 45 per cent of the population.”
In addition to COVAX and AVATT, however, the health minister also revealed Nigeria is holding bilateral negotiations aimed at securing doses of Sputnik V vaccine produced by Russia’s Gamaleya, as well as doses of COVAXIN, India’s first indigenous COVID-19 vaccine, which has just released interim Phase 3 results.
In a statement, the World Health Organization (WHO) described the arrival of doses of vaccine in Nigeria as “a historic step towards the goal to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally, in what will be the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history”.
Through the COVAX Facility, about 90 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be delivered to Sub-Saharan Africa in the first quarter of 2021. The facility is expected to provide up to 600 million doses to the region by the end of 2021 thus vaccination of 20% of its population. The COVAX Facility, a joint initiative of the WHO, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, and other global health groups, aims to deliver at least 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines globally by the end of 2021.
Confusion on Eligibility for Vaccine
At the same time that the first doses were being received, however, there was confusion on who really qualifies to get the vaccine first of all.
On Monday evening, Tolu Ogunlesi, Special Assistant to President Buhari on Digital and New Media, affirmed in a Tweet that the phases for vaccine rollout in Nigeria are: frontline health workers and strategic leadership, older people, with priority for those with comorbidities; individuals aged 18 to 49 with comorbidities and the rest of eligible population (i.e. 18-49 without comorbidities).
But just a few hours before the arrival of the vaccines in Abuja, the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), which is responsible for vaccine campaigns, released a link to a COVID-19 vaccination e-registration website which suggested that any Nigerian can register and book COVID-19 vaccination appointments right away – irrespective of their age or medical background.
The launch of the platform has resulted in confusion including a rebuke from the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) the umbrella body of medical doctors in Nigeria.
NMA President, Professor Innocent Uja, said the move would amount to a violation of the agreement the government previously made to vaccinate frontline workers before others.
“It means it will violate the issue of frontliners first,” he said adding, “maybe they want to see the depth of acceptability of the vaccine.”
Later, Dr. Faisal Shuaib, CEO of the NPHCDA, expressed confidence in the ability of his agency to deliver the vaccines to targeted groups first – as well as ensure cold chain storage of the vaccines.
“We have a robust cold chain system that can store all types of COVID-19 vaccine in accordance with the required temperature. We are therefore confident that we will have a very effective roll-out of the vaccine, starting with our critical healthcare workers, who are in the frontline in providing the care we all need,” Shuaib said.
Ray of Hope
In spite of the confusion regarding registration for vaccination, Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Nigeria Country Representative, said that with the arrival of vaccines, the path to recovery for Nigerians can finally begin.
“The only way out of this crisis is to ensure that vaccinations are available to all,” Hawkins said.
Thabani Maphosa, Managing Director for Country Programmes at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said the focus now should be on ensuring the vaccines are made available to the people most at risk, as soon as possible, and to ensuring that routine immunization services for other life-threatening infections are also delivered to avoid other disease outbreaks.
Even though experts are pessimistic about Nigeria being able to reach the 70% levels of vaccine coverage that experts say would be required to reach herd immunity, Mustapha was optimistic. He said the country could achieve herd immunity within a little more than a year:
“I therefore urge all Nigerians to continue to comply with the non-pharmaceutical measures, even as we roll out the vaccines administration plan, which is expected to reach 70 percent of our population between 2021 and 2022