Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa is still asking for vaccines. Approximately 7 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated, compared with about 60 percent of the U.S. population and upwards of 75 percent in some wealthy European and Asian nations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal marked a long-overdue change to U.S. policy on Africa after what many Africans saw as an era of indifference and contempt. But many African leaders remain angry over the lack of vaccine access.
Ninety-six percent of Moderna’s vaccines, which benefited from U.S. taxpayer-funded technology, have gone to wealthier countries, according to the research group Airfinity. A Nov. 18 report foundthat among countries that participated in clinical trials, poorer countries received fewer doses than richer ones of the vaccines they helped test. Richer nations also continue to stockpile vaccines.
During a visit to the Institut Pasteur, a biomedical medical research center in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, Blinken talked about U.S. commitments to bolster vaccine manufacturing for a range of diseases. “We have to come together to close that gap. It’s the fair and just thing to do,” Blinken said at the center on Saturday.
That is slowly happening. In October, facing pressure from the Biden administration, Moderna agreed to sell 110 million doses to African Union member nations, enough to reach less than 10 percent of the continent’s population of 1.3 billion.
African diplomats have embraced a new U.S. policy on trade and investment, particularly on science and innovation. The U.S. government’s International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has committed $3.3 million toward Institut Pasteur’s manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines by 2022. Africans wonder why it has taken so long. After all, a bid to suspend intellectual property protections on vaccine technology, proposed by South Africa and India, has hit a dead end.
Many Africans have grown disillusioned with U.S. policy that has historically put Africa at the bottom of the priority list. America’s cultural soft power is wide-ranging in Africa, but China has outpaced the United States when it comes to economic initiatives. A Chinese partnership with Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria is already manufacturing China’s COVID-19 vaccines on the continent.
The DFC is now looking to expand African vaccine production. “We’re really thinking about investments that are not just for the next few years but the long term,” Nafisa Jiwani, managing director for health initiatives at the DFC, told me in August. “We’re paying attention to what the African Union is saying in terms of the strategic mission for vaccine manufacturing hubs and how you can leverage assets based from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa so that a country can quickly manufacture for their own needs and then be able to export out.”
Top U.S. officials are also sounding the right notes. “Too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners,” Blinken said on Friday in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. He vowed the United States will now treat Africa as the “major geopolitical player” it has become. But there is still a perception on the continent that U.S. policy could continue to be all talk and little action.
By Nosmot Gbadamosi, a multimedia journalist.