Acting Information Minister Jenfan Muswere this month revealed that the country could receive vaccines later this month in a statement that drew the ire of many who accused government of lacking a concrete plan to acquire the Covid vaccines.
This incoherence is unlike other countries such as South Africa which has already mooted plans to raise taxes to fund the acquisition of vaccines.
SA has also already ordered vaccines from AstraZeneca at reportedly double the price in Europe.
However an understanding of the facility which Zimbabwe is looking up to, to assist it get vaccines reveals the reasons why there have been so many placatory remarks lacking any coherent or clear strategic outline of the plan by government.
Government itself is actually waiting on COVAX.
COVAX is an initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched in April 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic and the arising need to ensure access to vaccines by all countries.
It’s an initiative that is aimed at supporting lower-income funded nations who are not able to afford the vaccines at their normal prices and those nations with no bilateral deals with manufacturers.
“The COVAX facility will do this by pooling buying power from participating economies and providing volume guarantees across a range of promising vaccine candidate”, according to WHO.
This places Zimbabwe in a very wide pool of almost all the developing countries across the world plus a huge number of other struggling higher income countries waiting in line for the vaccines.
Though there are currently more than 170 candidate vaccines which are in development the few that are already approved are very expensive for countries such as Zimbabwe.
According to Rory Horner, a researcher at the University of Manchester, some of the approved vaccines are also not suited to lower income countries such as Zimbabwe.
“Pfizer’s has to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius, requiring costly equipment and infrastructure, and is expensive at roughly US$20 a dose.
“Moderna’s can be kept in a standard refrigerator for up to 30 days but is even more expensive”, he says.
The COVAX facility also has mandatory requirements for recipient countries.
These include the submission of National Deployment and Vaccination plans (NDVPs) into the Country Readiness Portal launched by WHO.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore says these NDVPs ensure that, “countries are ready to receive them (vaccines), deploy them, and build trust in them”.
It’s not clear if the Zimbabwean government has finished its NDVP.
Another impediment for COVAX is that it can only distribute vaccines which have been approved by the WHO.
Some major manufacturers such as Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca are still to have their vaccines approved by WHO and thus cannot be part of the vaccines which can be taken aboard by COVAX.
This limits the amount of vaccines which Zimbabwe will have access to.
The COVAX facility also has to battle with developed nations which have been rapidly striking bilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers.
Resultantly, the manufacturers are giving first preference to the nations buying directly and have given smaller portions to COVAX.
Under COVAX, Pfizer has offered to provide only 50 million doses of vaccine to Africa between March and December 2021.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been on record lamenting this arrangement.
“COVAX volumes to be released between February and June may not extend beyond the needs of frontline healthcare workers, and thus may not be enough to contain the ever increasing toll of the pandemic in Africa”, he said.
Using its own measures outside COVAX, South Africa has already announced plans to acquire 1 million vaccines by the end of January and another half a million in February.
Such is the dire situation for countries such as Zimbabwe that Serum Institute of India (SII) CEO Adar Poonawalla has said, “for everyone on this planet-or at least 90%- to get it, it’s going to be at least 2024”.
SII is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.
The SII is also one of the three private manufacturers who have offered to supply the African Union (AU) but the first supply will only arrive around June.
However the total doses which have been pledged to the continent by COVAX, between February and June, will only cover 300 million people or 20%.
In an ironical twist to their anti-Western rhetoric Zimbabwe’s hopes may actually benefit from the US election result with new President Joe Biden expected to return the country to WHO were it will also join in funding of COVAX.
More funding many mean more buying power and more vaccines for Zimbabwe.