The COVAX question: Blame-shifting or truth-bomb detonations?

Arrival of COVID-19 vaccine at SSKA..PIC PHATSIMO KAPENG
Arrival of COVID-19 vaccine at SSKA..PIC PHATSIMO KAPENG

President Mokgweetsi Masisi recently revealed government’s growing frustration with the slow pace of vaccine distribution from the COVAX facility, as cases and deaths in the country rise. The omission of Botswana’s name from the 180-country strong facility has fuelled further concerns about where the local vaccine programme is headed. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes

It is all a simple error, COVAX authorities say when asked why Botswana does not appear in the last updated list of countries participating in the facility. Run as an arrangement between the World Health Organisation, the GAVI Alliance as well as public and private donors, COVAX involves more than 180 countries grouping together to approach vaccine manufacturers for equitable distribution.

Botswana is one of just five African countries self-financing their participation in COVAX as the rest are supported by either donors or debt. Botswana was also one of the first African countries to pay into COVAX, depositing a reported $7 million last November.

The omission of Botswana from the list of self-financing parties on the GAVI website, coming as it did after President Mokgweetsi Masisi expressed frustration with the pace of distribution coming out of the facility, triggered foreboding from citizens monitoring the supply of doses.

“Thanks for flagging that Botswana doesn’t appear on the list of Facility participants,” a GAVI spokesperson told Mmegi this week.

“This is a technical issue.

“We’ll update the document as soon as possible.”

Masisi, speaking during tours he conducted last week at vaccination sites in Greater Gaborone, said the government was concerned that after paying into COVAX, it appeared the country was not getting its money’s worth.

His remarks triggered fact-checking by citizens and the media who picked up the omission of Botswana from the COVAX list. Masisi repeated his previously made statement that wealthier countries had pre-booked more doses than they needed at manufacturers, meaning countries such as Botswana, even though they had paid, would only get sufficient doses next year.

This allegation was also fact-checked by social media sleuths who discovered a UNICEF dashboard on vaccines indicating that Botswana signed its agreements in April this year and while this was ahead of other African countries, the timing was after other developed nations had sealed theirs.

Laying the groundwork,the detective work being done around COVAX and other distribution lines has led to criticism, as expressed mainly on social media, that local authourities sat on their hands while other countries prudently negotiated deals for vaccines. Publicly available information and previously reported by Mmegi indicates that Botswana initially put its trust in COVAX through the November 2020 deposit, but always had an eye on securing bilateral deals for supply. From the figure reported by Reuters in November of the 900,000 AstraZeneca doses secured, this whittled down to just under 120,000 by February when GAVI officially revealed the numbers each participating country would receive.

By March, when GAVI released a document indicating allocations, Botswana’s share had been reduced to 100,800 of which 62,400 has been delivered and another special allocation of 19,890 Pfizer shots supplied.

Donations made by the Indian government of 30,000 COVISHIELD (AstraZeneca licence from India) were donated by the Indian government and another 200,000 donations from China of Sinovac doses, helped kickstart the vaccination programme from March, while local authorities scrambled to secure bilateral supplies outside of the COVAX facility.

Official COVAX agreements allow countries to make their own bilateral deals, but these have to be officially notified to the facility in order to aid its planning in distribution.

In April, after the whittling down of the COVAX allocation, Botswana had secured provisional supply deals with Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Sputnik as well as the Indian and Chinese producers. At the time, the Presidential COVID-19 Task Force Team deputy coordinator, Mosepele Mosepele warned that the quantities could change depending on the availability from producers and local assessments of effectiveness.

The Task Team’s spokesperson, Kago Mmopi explained what ‘securing vaccines’ meant in the context of a global scramble for doses. Securing supply simply means entering into an agreement to be supplied. Payment is required once the shipment is ready from production.

“When they come off the production line, we have to pay so that they are shipped to us,” he told Mmegi.

“There’s nothing being stored; as soon as they are produced, they need to be shipped out because the demand globally is very high.

“Before COVID-19, global vaccine production was about five billion and it has skyrocketed to more than 10 billion.

“The demand outstrips the supply.”

The deals secured were expected to be enough to cover 1.9 million people in the country, more than the estimated 1.6 million people eligible for the vaccines. Eligible persons for the vaccination programme are those aged 18 and above. The vaccine programme for those aged 55 years and above kicked off in March with the donated and purchased vaccines and by Tuesday this week, 121,518 people had received both doses. The vaccination campaign has now shifted to the 30 to 54 age range, which not only has the highest population numbers in the country’s demographic but represents the most economically active group.

Masisi, meanwhile, recently announced that 500,000 doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 50,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, which requires two shots were due by December. Both deals are confirmed by UNICEF’s COVID-19 dashboard, as well as Moderna’s own statement. In total, Botswana has signed up for 1.1 million doses of Johnson & Johnson and 500,000 doses of Moderna due to arrive by next year.

So has COVAX been

unfair to Botswana?The COVAX facility has released its distribution plans for the fourth round allocations to be done immediately and Botswana does not appear on the list, a fact that local commentators say again puts a cloud on the local vaccination programme.

COVAX documents suggest Botswana was not included in the fourth round allocations because these were meant for those countries that had supplies disrupted by India’s decision to suspend vaccine exports. Botswana as a self-financing participant was signed up for AstraZeneca from its European or South Korean plants, not India. COVAX officials explained how the allocation works for each round of distributions.

“This fifth round of allocations took place as per the Fair Allocation Mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility, which was developed by WHO in consultation with its member states.

“This allocation framework for fair and equitable access to COVID-19 health products sets forth the criteria and approach to the allocation of vaccines through the COVAX facility.”

Botswana, however, also does not appear in the fifth round allocations published by COVAX. Here, the country appears to have grounds to complain.

Editor's Comment
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