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African Countries Gaining Control of Covid Vaccine Supplies

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African countries will be able to dramatically accelerate their vaccination programs because the system of distributing Covid vaccines has changed, World Health Organization officials said on Thursday.

Previously, the W.H.O. would send vaccine doses to African countries as they became available. But since January, countries have been able to request the vaccines they need from the W.H.O. directly, and in what quantity and when. As a result, they have been able to significantly ramp up vaccination efforts.

The continent as a whole had been expected to reach the target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population by August 2024, said Phionah Atuhebwe of the W.H.O.’s Africa office. But now, she said, it seemed like that target could be met by early 2023. Some African countries, including Kenya, the Ivory Coast and Ghana, have rapidly accelerated the rate at which they are vaccinating their populations over a short period of time.

“Things are going to change,” Dr. Atuhebwe said.

A year since Africa received its first vaccines from Covax, a global effort to distribute doses equitably that is led partly by the W.H.O., 400 million doses have been administered. That is the most robust vaccine rollout on the continent in a single year.

But Africa’s vaccination rate still lags far behind the rest of the world: only about 16 percent of people in Africa have received at least one dose, compared to well over 50 percent in every other continent.

As vaccine supplies have increased, efforts to get the doses into people’s arms have intensified. But difficulties in storing vaccines and delivering them to towns and villages have slowed the overall program. And vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, or indifference from people who have greater priorities have also posed problems. Some countries have reported that their supplies have expired before they can be administered.

On Tuesday, the head of Africa Centers for Disease Control, Dr. John Nkengasong, suggested that it would sometimes be necessary to pause vaccine donations to prevent doses from going to waste. “Let’s pause and avoid the risk of sending so much that it gets expired,” Dr. Nkengasong said in an interview with the news outlet Politico.

Later, he clarified that he was not calling for a total halt to donations but rather a coordinated approach that ensured vaccines arrived at the right time.

Dr. Atuhebwe said the changing trends meant that vaccine donations from around the world were still needed.

“If we use the 2021 trends, it would just not be realistic,” she said. “We’re accelerating the scale up, meaning we need many more doses.”

Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting from Johannesburg.

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