Worldwide, 2020 was economically annus horribilis for many, especially the small enterprises and those that depend on odd jobs for their survival. The novel coronavirus disease or Covid-19 virtually shut down economies as government after government implemented lockdowns, lockups, shutdowns, and other restrictions on human movements to slow down the spread of the virus.
However, the virus seemed uncontainable. Just one year later, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics for December 2020 show that nearly 81 million inhabitants had been infected and 1.8 million had died. Picture all the residents of Lilongwe and Blantyre Cities dead because that is what 1.8 million deaths equal to in Malawi.
As we start 2021, some parts of the world are experiencing a second wave of Covid-19 infections. The emergence of a more vicious age-defying strain of the virus, first detected in the United Kingdom (UK says in South Africa), which has already spread to the USA and other countries has complicated matters.
However, there is hope that the pandemic will be tamed. The international pharmaceutical industry has not been sitting idle. Russia was the first to announce its Covid-19 vaccine termed Sputnik V. Russia and many other countries including Argentina are already vaccinating their people with Sputnik V. Second was the US-German pharmaceutical industries announcing the Pfizer-BionTech Vaccine, which the UK, EU and US are injecting into their citizens. The USA has another Covid-19 vaccine, Moderna, already cleared for emergency use. China’s Sinopharm has also produced China’ own Covid-19 vaccine. Oxford-AstraZeneca has also come up with the UK’s first vaccine. Iran is mass trialing its own home-grown vaccine.
The vaccines have different efficacy and effectiveness levels according to medical and scientific reviews. So, when making approvals, national drug and vaccine clearance boards and virologists have to do their own reviews and make recommendations for their countries. In Malawi that responsibility falls on the Public Health Institute (Ministry of Health, Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, the Pharmacy, Medicines and Poisons Board and to some extent, the Pesticides Control Board.
Unfortunately, the plethora of vaccines poses a challenge for Africa, and Malawi in particular. If China, for instance, decides to donate vaccines to Malawi, that country will not export Pfizer-BionTech, Moderna, Astra-Zeneca or Spunik V. China will send its Sinopharm vaccine, partly to economically support its pharmaceutical industry. Africa, and Malawi in particular, will inject these Chinese vaccines into Malawians. The Chinese or Russians are suspicious of US, EU and UK vaccines and vice versa.
Luckily, there is Covax championed by Gavi, the WHO, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) to ensure equitable access of Covid-19 vaccines internationally. Which or whose vaccines will Covax inject into Malawians?
Unless trusted local medical authorities are transparently involved in the choice of the vaccine to be administered in Malawi to Malawians, vaccine uptake will be an uphill task. In the absence of a solid assurance—such as the President and religious leader leading in being vaccinated—of vaccine safety, Malawians are unlikely to readily accept to be vaccinated.