Lessons from SA-AstraZeneca debacle

The government has moved to quickly rebut reports that it is unsure which Covid-19 vaccines to import. But in all honesty reports to that effect make more sense than the political bravado the government has chosen to show.


Editor’s Memo

nevanji madanhire

Government cannot say they know exactly which vaccine to import when they have no clue which variant (or variants) of the coronavirus are at work in Zimbabwe. The world is now aware of the existence of at least four strains including the original SARS-CoV-2.

First, it was B.1.1.7, also known as the UK variant. Then came the B.1.351, a strain that was first detected in South Africa, followed by reports of P.1, a variant that showed up in Brazil. There have also been reports of additional variants surfacing in other places—including in the US.

Our government has not yet told us for which variant it is importing the vaccines. It is very likely that all variants are already in Zimbabwe because of the open borders and also the amount of international travel that takes place. We also haven’t heard of a “cure-all vaccine” yet.

The drama that took place in South Africa early this week after the country imported millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine only to find it was hardly effective in the treatment of the South African strain should be a wake-up call. There is no need to hurtle like an extraterrestrial missile into bilateral agreements for the supply of vaccines without knowing exactly for which strain we are receiving them.

The SA-AstraZeneca debacle has another worrying dimension. How is that a drug that was approved only a month ago has such an early expiry date? The European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine only in January but the batch that landed in South Africa expires in April.

This can only mean it cannot be suitable for countries where logistically it is impossible to roll it out countrywide within a three-month timeframe.

Not only that, but the South Africa fiasco stinks of something even more sinister — dumping. Is it possible that manufacturers of vaccines that may have been overtaken by the naturally fast mutations of the virus may find in Africa a dumping ground for their useless vaccines?

India, from where South Africa imported the AstraZeneca drug, surely should have known its expiry date! Why then export it if it was not to rid itself of a consignment of drugs it had no use for and in the process recoup its costs?

Zimbabwe has to learn a lesson or two from what happened down South. It must be careful that the drugs it imports are effective on the strains in Zimbabwe (which at the moment are unknown due to Zimbabwe’s scientific limitations) and that the country may be used as a dumping ground for drugs the exporters have no use for.

Rich countries selfishly hoarded the first approved vaccines in a phenomenon called vaccine nationalism. They may have realised now that was not such a wise thing to do and are now turning their acts of selfishness into “benevolence” (when in fact it is malevolence) knowing full well Africa’s desperation.

But why is there such a hurry in Zimbabwe to roll out vaccines without the certainty of their efficacy when the current lockdown has shown beyond any doubt that behaviour change can effectively control the spread of the virus? After the recklessness of the festive season the cases spiked in January leading to the carnage we witnessed but the cases are plummeting due to the lockdown. So the gospel to preach is that we stick to the good habits of the lockdown while we wait for scientifically proven vaccines.