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Why it could be years before Africans have access to coronavirus vaccines

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The development of COVID-19 vaccines is raising questions about their rollout across the world.

    As the richest nations buy up the lion's share of doses, how and when will developing countries be able to vaccinate their populations?

    Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo are now wrestling with that reality in a nation that's already endured recent epidemics.

    Chris Ocamringa has more from Kinshasa.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    It's a typical private clinic on the outskirts of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Patients come here with all with types of ailments.

    This schoolgirl is here for a fever, in the midst of a power blackout. The doctor and health care workers here are used to making do with the little they have. They also have a big need.

  • Cyprien Katurisi (through translator):

    We have no medical supplies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 here. There's no disinfectant to sanitize the clinic or masks to give to our patients. We are exposed to the disease. The government should support us with some equipment.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    But the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world. Decades of conflict and corruption have blighted its health care system.

    Even so, the DRC has learned how to win wars against epidemics. A campaign to vaccinate 18 million children here helped the DRC overcome the world's largest measles epidemic in the last two years.

    The government declared the end of an Ebola outbreak in a northwestern province last month. That outbreak was the 11th to occur in the DRC since 1976. The World Health Organization says vaccines and treatments played a role in fighting the outbreaks, as did the DRC's success in mobilizing health workers and educating the public.

    The DRC is now trying to use that hard-won experience.

  • Steve Ahuka:

    Our previous fightings on — against infectious disease, not a lot not only Ebola, but measles, yellow fever and other epidemic diseases, helped us a lot to organize fighting on this pandemic crisis.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    But there's a long way to go.

    When the pandemic broke out in March, many Congolese suspected the government made the announcement just to get funding from donors. They ignored the health measures aimed at limiting its spread. And the DRC is now experiencing a second wave of infections, with over 14,000 cases recorded. And health authorities are eager to use COVID-19 vaccines.

  • Steve Ahuka:

    There is a special group of scientists and public health specialists who are discussing on all those issues related to COVID-19. But, definitely, I think our country is committed to use COVID-19 vaccination as a tool.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    But the government doesn't have the money to procure the vaccines. Its health care system is grappling with other diseases like cholera, polio and monkeypox. Even if it did have the funds, rich nations are stockpiling the world's most trusted vaccines, buying up doses that outnumber their populations.

    That leaves most of Africa scrambling for options.

  • John Nkengasong:

    We have developed a strategy for the continent, which we call the whole-of-Africa strategy for — to access vaccines in a timely, fair and equitable manner.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its director, Dr. John Nkengasong, are working with a global initiative known as COVAX to ensure that countries like the DRC get access to the COVID-19 vaccines and are not left behind.

    But an internal investigation by the program's own promoters reportedly indicates it's struggling from a lack of fund and faces a high risk of failure, leaving billions of people without access to vaccines for years.

    As the richer nations reserve more doses than they need of the U.S. and European-made vaccines, Africa may have little choice than to turn to the Russian or Chinese vaccines.

  • John Nkengasong:

    Africa CDC is watching over all vaccines that are being trailed. We are analyzing the results. And only the most effective and efficacious vaccines will be allowed to be used on the continent of Africa.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    But it may be years before any of the vaccines are available for many Africans. And though some African countries are already preparing to supply coolers for the COVID-19 vaccines across the continent, a recent study conducted by the World Health Organization found that only 40 percent of African countries are prepared to roll out a vaccine.

    Poor infrastructure, frequent power outages, roads in disrepair, all will be challenges for the DRC when planning how to store and distribute the vaccines.

    The DRC is among the countries that are not yet ready to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine. Health experts here say they are still discussing the modalities of introducing and distributing a vaccine that will suitable for their environment. And though the African CDC has promised not to leave them out, African nations do not know when or how many doses of the vaccines will be available to them.

    The incident manager of the DRC's COVID-19 pandemic team told us they have no idea yet when a final decision will be made.

    And when the DRC government does get the vaccines in hand, it will face resistance from some Congolese citizens in the rollout.

  • Gilead Nsakala (through translator):

    I'm not sure about what was used in making that COVID-19 vaccine by foreigners. I won't accept it if they bring it here. Congo has a lot of plants with medicinal properties that can cure that disease.

  • Monica Tshilanda (through translator):

    I won't accept any vaccine because I know Jesus is much bigger than any medication. He has kept me alive for so long. And only he will decide when I die. I'm not worried about COVID-19.

  • Faustin Talamaku (through translator):

    If that vaccine will really save lives, then it's OK for our leaders to approve it and start vaccinating people.

  • Chris Ocamringa:

    The epicenter of the DRC's COVID-19 pandemic is in the capital, Kinshasa, home to 12 million people. The vast majority have to hit the streets daily to put food on the table.

    The lockdown restrictions imposed by the government to curb the spread of COVID-19 earlier this year had a devastating impact on their lives. It will take a lot of convincing from the government for the population to turn up in large numbers to get vaccinated once it's approved.

    But it's the key to solving the crisis here, a nightmare many are longing to wake up from.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Chris Ocamringa in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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