The World Health Organization warns a shortage of syringes is threatening to upend efforts to vaccinate millions of Africans against COVID-19, a disease that has infected more than 8.4 million people on the continent, killing 217,000.
Lifesaving vaccines are in short supply in Africa. The World Health Organization says only six percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. That compares with more than 40 percent of the people in most high-income countries.
Vaccine shipments to the continent are ramping up and expected to increase into next year. While that is encouraging, WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti says a scarcity of syringes could paralyze progress.
“I mean just to say, syringes sound like a very small item in the big picture of rolling out vaccines, but we know very well if you do not have syringes, you cannot put shots into people’s arms so it is a very important topic…There is a looming threat that syringe supplies will dry up,” said Moeti.
The U.N. children’s fund ships syringes for the global rollout of vaccines under the COVAX facility.
Moeti says UNICEF predicts a global shortage of around two billion syringes needed for COVID-19 vaccine and routine immunizations.
“Already, some African countries, like Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa, have experienced delays in receiving vaccines, and unless drastic measures are taken to boost syringe production, Africa faces a crisis,” said Moeti.
On a brighter note, Moeti says she is very excited by an announcement from pharmaceutical giant Merck that it will allow other drug makers to produce its new oral antiviral COVID-19 medicine.
“Could this be a game-changer? We sincerely hope so. We sincerely hope in the context of the global crisis of this nature and looking at the gaps in access and the needs,” said Moeti. “And just the principle of local production, learning from the extremely difficult experience of this pandemic that more and more pharmaceutical companies would exceptionally be willing to follow Merck’s example. “
Moeti notes local production of the drug and other COVID-19 therapeutics would help speed up and address inequity and access to key products in poorer nations. She says it would be extremely desirable to have similar patent sharing agreements extended to vaccine production as well.