By Omar Mohammed and Clement Uwiringiyimana
NAIROBI/KIGALI (Reuters) – Kenya received over a million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, while Rwanda said it was the first in Africa to secure shots from Pfizer, as efforts to inoculate the world’s poorest nations accelerated.
With fewer resources and tougher logistics than other regions, African nations are racing to secure the doses needed to protect their roughly 1.3 billion people and allow the safe reopening of economies.
Africa has been relatively lightly hit by the coronavirus compared with other regions, recording 104,000 deaths, according to a Reuters tally. That is lower than national tolls in the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and Britain.
Kenya’s batch, which arrived on a Qatar Airways passenger flight, is the first of an initial allocation of 3.56 million doses by the global COVAX facility.
“We have received … machine guns, bazookas, and tanks to fight this war against COVID-19,” Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe exulted as the doses arrived at Nairobi’s main airport.
COVAX, which is led by the GAVI vaccines alliance along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners, aims to deliver over 1.3 billion doses to 92 lower- and middle-income countries, covering up to 20% of their populations.
Backers of the initiative hope to level a playing field that has seen wealthier nations quickly vaccinate millions, ahead of poorer regions. Only a few African nations have started inoculating citizens with vaccines acquired outside of COVAX.
First shots under COVAX are arriving at several African nations this week, including Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.
Senegal, which received 200,000 doses developed by China’s Sinopharm last month, got an additional 324,000 shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday, via COVAX.
In Kigali, officials said Rwanda will get the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 shots to be dispatched to Africa under the vaccine-sharing scheme. The Pfizer vaccine presents an extra logistical challenge because it requires ultra-cold storage.
The batch of 102,960 doses were due in Kigali on Wednesday, hours after a flight landed carrying 240,000 AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute of India, the health ministry said. The government has installed special infrastructure to keep the vaccine at -70 degrees.
“Rwanda is one of the first countries among the low income countries to have ultra-cold chain,” said Fode Ndiaye, the United Nations’ resident coordinator.
Rwanda plans to start its vaccination drive on Friday, prioritizing frontline health workers and others at high risk. It hopes to vaccinate 30% of its roughly 12 million people before the end of this year.
Despite Africa’s comparatively low fatalities, fragile economies across the continent are reeling from lockdowns.
Kenya, which has so far recorded 106,470 infections and 1,863 deaths, has taken a major economic hit from the virus, which cut the flow of tourists, a crucial source of foreign exchange and jobs.
Nairobi plans to prioritize 400,000 health workers nationwide in a vaccination campaign starting on Friday, the health ministry said.
It will join Ivory Coast, Ghana and South Africa among the nations in sub-Saharan Africa to start vaccination drives.
(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)