Countries across the African continent are facing a second COVID-19 outbreak, linked to a variant first found in South Africa that has been detected in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Comoros and Zambia and more than 20 non-African countries so far. There is concern new variants, which scientists believe are more infectious, could spread the virus further before widespread vaccination begins. More than 40 African countries have been hit by this second wave, and just six have received relatively small shipments of vaccines. Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the world faces “a moral catastrophe” without vaccine equity. “It has to be very clear that no part of the world will be safe until all parts of the world are safe,” he says. “We either come out of this together or we go down together. There’s no middle ground in this.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We begin today in Africa, where countries across the continent are facing a second COVID-19 outbreak, linked to a variant first found in South Africa that many scientists believe is more infectious and has also been detected in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, as well as more than 20 non-African countries so far. More than 40 African nations have been hit by this second wave, but just six have received relatively small quantities of vaccine. There’s concern new variants could spread the virus further before widespread vaccination begins.
A virtual African Union summit this weekend will focus in part on the continent’s response to COVID-19. The outgoing chair, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s own country accounts for about 40% of coronavirus cases and deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. A Johannesburg nurse recently described the dire situation.
LERATO MTHUNZI: Our mortuaries, as I speak to you, are full to capacity. In fact, it’s in the longest, where we’ve seen, you know, body bags on the floor.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden sent a video message to the African Union summit vowing more cooperation in the fight against the virus.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To reach this future, we also must confront the serious challenges we face. That includes investing more in global health, defeating COVID-19 and working to prevent, detect and respond to future health crises, and partnering with the African CDC and other institutions to advance health security.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to speak with Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has said the world faces a “moral catastrophe” if COVID-19 vaccinations are delayed in Africa while wealthier nations vaccinate their entire populations.
Doctor, welcome back to Democracy Now!, and congratulations as you mark the fourth anniversary today of the founding of the African Centers for Disease Control.
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be back with you again.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you start off explaining why you’ve described what could happen in Africa as a “moral catastrophe”?
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: I think the situation in Africa is urgent and is critical with respect to the COVID-19. If you look at this second wave of the pandemic, it has really become fiercer than what we observed in the first wave, with a mortality rate now higher than the global case fatality rate. And the rate of deaths, if you see the rate of deaths occurring over the last one month, is significantly more than what we observed during the first wave. So, unless we have a timely access to vaccines, I’m afraid the situation will be extremely difficult to manage going forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa urged wealthy nations to stop hoarding surplus doses of COVID-19 vaccines. This is what he said.
PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: The rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses of vaccines from the developers and manufacturers of these vaccines. And some countries have even gone beyond and acquired up to four times what their population needs. And that was aimed at hoarding these vaccines. And now this is being done to the exclusion of countries, of other countries in the world, that most need this. … We are all not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people and other countries are not vaccinating. We all must act together in combating coronavirus, because it affects all of us equally.
AMY GOODMAN: In a webinar last month about Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine financing and deployment strategy, South African President Ramaphosa, who’s also the outgoing chair of the African Union, that’s holding its meeting this weekend, said, quote, “The painful irony is that some of the clinical trials for these vaccines were carried out in Africa.” So, Dr. Nkengasong, talk about that. Talk about Africa being used as the experimentation site, but then, when it comes to reaping the benefits of the vaccines that prove to be safe, you’re last in line.
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: I think it’s unfortunate. When I used the word that we may be heading towards a “moral catastrophe,” I meant it. In 1996, when drugs to treat HIV were available, it took 10 years before those drugs were finally accessible on the continent. And between 1996 and 2006, 12 million Africans died — and, I underline, unnecessarily. I think we should really make sure that the history, that sad page of our history, does not occur again, especially with this pandemic. So I think we are very, very worried that we may be heading towards that direction if something is not done and done urgently.
I think, in 1963, Martin Luther King said, mentioned or characterized the challenges that they had at that time as the “fierce urgency of now.” I don’t know of any situation that we are living with today that doesn’t meet that scenario other than rapid and timely access to COVID vaccines broadly, not just in the developed world, but in developing countries.
And President Ramaphosa and Chairperson Moussa Faki of the African Union Commission are leading a charge to make sure that Africa is really not lagging too much behind. We have secured 270 million doses of vaccines and an additional 400 million doses of vaccines from the Serum Institute in India. So we are making some progress in that area, but it will not be easily distributed. We have to mount an extraordinary, historic effort to vaccinate up to about 30% of our population before December in order to begin to slow down the spread of the pandemic in Africa; otherwise, the consequences will be very, very devastating on our continent.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the deals that must be made with pharmaceutical companies and other countries. I mean, you have places like Canada and the United States that ultimately are ordering hundreds of millions of vaccines. And actually, I think in Canada it’s something like — will have enough to vaccinate their population four or five times, before you see countries getting vaccines in Africa. So, what kind of responsibility does a country like the United States have? Here in this country, people are saying, “No, we can’t get vaccines. Why should we care about what’s happening in Africa?” Explain why Africa is so critical.
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: Africa is so critical because we are part of the globe, and Africa is a continent of 1.3 billion people. And again, we live — we are seeing and witnessing a virus that is spreading very quick. The globe, as a whole, has recorded more than 100 million cases of COVID-19 in just one year. So, that is extraordinary. The last time we saw such a fast-moving and impactful virus was in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. So, it is a threat globally.
I think it has to be very clear that no part of the world will be safe until all parts of the world are safe. I think we are in this together. We either come out of this together or we go down together. There is no middle ground in this. So, that is why the United States, Canada and other developing worlds must work collaboratively and in a coordinated fashion with the African continent, so that we begin to get timely access to the vaccines.
The countries that have secured additional or excess doses of vaccines can do a very simple thing and the right thing, so that history will remember them right: to reallocate those vaccines into either the COVAX Facility or the mechanism that the African Union has put in place so that we can begin to rapidly vaccinate our people. I use the word “rapidly” purposefully. If we have vaccines later in the year, they become meaningless for us. We have to have vaccines now, so that we start vaccinating our people on a large scale and then stop the spread of the new variants that you just indicated earlier.
AMY GOODMAN: Doctor, could you explain the South African variant? Of course, we’re hearing about it in the United States because people are threatened in the United States. How fast it’s moving? What it means?
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: What it means is that we are dealing with a virus that replicates with a lot of errors. There are error in the viruses. And the occurrence of mutants in a virus like the COVID-19 virus is not strange. I think it’s normal, and it should be expected. So, what we know is that this virus is currently dominating the pandemic in South Africa. And you have seen how quickly they are spread just over the last couple of months. And South Africa now accounts for about 40% of all infections on the continent. So that also means that the health systems in South Africa will be overwhelmed, are currently heavily overwhelmed by this rapidly spreading virus.
What we don’t know is if people infected with this virus are dying more. I think maybe, and just maybe, an increased case-fatality ratio, which is now around 2.6%, both the global average, which is 2.2%, might be attributed to this variant. We just don’t know. So, Africa CDC has established a network of what we call the Pathogen Genomic Institute around the continent to try to generate over 50 million genomes in the next six months to better understand the spread of this variant across the continent. And it’s work that we are very committed to and building the right partnerships to deep dive into this spreading variant.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Nkengasong, I want to read from The Guardian newspaper. They say that “Tanzania has rejected vaccinations altogether, raising fears that the east African country could act as a reservoir for the disease and threaten progress elsewhere. President John Magufuli said last week that Tanzania had 'lived for over one year without the virus because our God is able and Satan will always fail' and insisted the pandemic can be fought with herbal remedies. The World Health Organization’s Africa chief last week urged Tanzania to share its data on infections.” Can you talk about the significance of what Tanzania is doing?
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: What Tanzania is doing is hugely significant. No country is an island. And Tanzania is a strong member of the African Union. And again, the underpinning of our union is the need to cooperate, to collaborate and to share with each other, to build a united Africa. Those were the founding principles that established the African Union. And a country like Tanzania, with leaders like Julius Nyerere who were the founding fathers of that country, believed strongly in the unity of our continent. And there is no other time I can recall that is more challenging than it is now because of COVID-19.
I think we have to express that unity of purpose and come together as one and fight these battles. COVID-19 will not be eliminated in Africa if we still have pockets of COVID infections in Tanzania, a country of about 60 million inhabitants. It’s just not going to happen. So we call on Tanzania to cooperate with the World Health Organization, with the Africa CDC, with the African Union Commission, so that we can work hand in hand to eliminate this virus from our continent. We must do that to survive; otherwise, we will live with COVID forever on the continent, in addition to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, that are already a serious threat to our development.
AMY GOODMAN: The first shipment of vaccines arrived in South Africa earlier this week. How many vaccines have been acquired by the entire continent? The World Health Organization said on Thursday its COVAX initiative aims to start shipping nearly 90 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa in February. And can you explain what COVAX is?
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: So, COVAX is a multilateral mechanism that was set up in Geneva and is co-managed by the World Health Organization, the Global Alliance of Vaccines and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, in abbreviation, CEPI. So, I think it is our response to what I will call an anti — a response to protectionism. I think it says that we can pool our resources and then acquire vaccines and distribute it to those countries that are in need of. I think it’s a very much welcome initiative, and we continue to be very supportive of that initiative.
At the same time, the African continent, the leadership of the African continent, as I indicated earlier, under the leadership of Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and the president of South Africa, in his capacity as the rotating chair of the African Union, President Ramaphosa, have pulled together what we call the African Vaccine Alliance to acquire more vaccines. And together, we’ve acquired a total of about 700 million doses of vaccines. But let me be very clear that all of those vaccine doses will not arrive on the continent at the same time. Those vaccines will be sequenced over a period of the next six months and will also spread over to 2022.
So, I think those vaccines, both from the COVAX Facility and the African Union, [inaudible] enable us to achieve our 60% immunization target, which we set up as part of our continental strategy to achieve population or herd immunity. Without that, we will not be able to eliminate COVID from the continent. So, we are very encouraged with those numbers, but we have to get prepared. And we are working with member states to establish their vaccination plans, establish their vaccine centers so that once the vaccines arrive, we can easily and rapidly roll out vaccination.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of President Biden rejoining the World Health Organization? And finally, what is your message for the Biden administration when it comes to vaccine access in Africa?
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: I was very encouraged to listen to President Biden’s message a few minutes ago when you played that. I think the United States leadership has always been determinant and have always played — been a game changer once they’ve deployed themselves appropriately, be it in the area of malaria elimination, measles elimination or HIV/AIDS. The PEPFAR program is a good example of that. So, we remain very hopeful and very encouraged by the message and the wordings that we are hearing from the White House with respect to global health security, with respect to the fight against COVID-19 on the continent. Africa CDC stands ready to work with the U.S. government and the U.S. CDC, the USAID and other parties that have been working with us all through this. So we are extremely encouraged with what we are hearing from the White House.
AMY GOODMAN: And what words of advice do you have for the United States? I mean, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and yet it has the worst infection rate and the worst death rate — what, less than 5% of the world’s population, but more than a fifth of the world’s deaths and infections when it comes to COVID-19.
DR. JOHN NKENGASONG: I believe it’s a new day for the United States with the new administration. And we are very encouraged that their response to the current pandemic in the United States is truly now driven by science, by evidence and by data. So we are very encouraged with that. I think that is the centrality to fighting any pandemic, is to rely on good science and to rely on good data and to make sure that there’s trust between the community and public health experts. I think we at Africa CDC are extremely privileged that we have been working hand in glove with the political leadership of our continent, and we’ve not run into any challenge and issues with that. So, when [inaudible] do not align, it becomes very challenging. So we are very encouraged that the United States is moving in that direction.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. John Nkengasong, thank you so much for being with us, director for Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking to us from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.