Recent media reports disclosed that close to one million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines donated to Nigeria from Europe and elsewhere and distributed to COVAX, the dose-sharing facility led by the GAVI vaccine alliance and the World Health Organisation (WHO), had expired in October before they could be used. According to some estimates, this represents the highest vaccine wastage in Nigeria within a short period of time.
The news is coming at a time when a new variant of the coronavirus is spreading around the world and countries are shutting their borders to contain it. The one million expired doses were made by AstraZeneca and reportedly had a shelf life of four to six weeks. This raises several issues. First, in our opinion, is the practice by Western countries of hoarding vaccines until the very last minute, when they know they have had their fill and the vaccines can longer be used within their borders. This practice has characterised the distribution of vaccines right from the beginning of the year when most countries started receiving shipments of vaccines.
Going by WHO records made available to the public, more than 6.4 billion vaccine doses have now been administered globally, and almost one-third of the world’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Low-income countries have, however, received less than half of one percent of the vaccines in supply. In Africa, less than five per cent of people are fully vaccinated. This is not accidental. The rich nations, expectedly, had bought off all the vaccine deliveries for the year 2021, some buying twice as much as they need. It is also why most countries in Africa were unable to buy directly or get commitments from the big pharmaceuticals companies making the vaccines.
Developed countries like the United States of America, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada, only started donating vaccines after more than half of their eligible population had been vaccinated. And in many cases, the vaccines, which already have short, shelf lives were shipped after spending weeks in storage.
A second issue, in our view, is that the one million expired vaccines scandal brings to the fore the obvious lack of a plan on how to embark on a mass vaccination programme by the ministry of health and the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA). It was only recently that the government started making efforts to vaccinate those living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps. But the most disturbing part is the fact that there are no official figures of how many doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines have expired, how many are in circulation or even the total number of vaccines Nigeria has received.
All that the Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, had to say is that the expired vaccines will be destroyed by National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). Yet, he did not deem it fit to inform the public on a vital issue of whether the expired vaccines have remained in storage in Abuja or Lagos ever since they were delivered or whether they have been distributed to states in need. Or, even for that matter, whether Nigerians are being vaccinated with expired drugs.
It is not enough for the minister to, off-handedly dismiss the matter, most especially if the ministry and the NPHCDA had no pre-arranged plans on which state and local government every dose of vaccine received is going to. WHO, in a joint statement with Africa CDC, the GAVI vaccine alliance and other health groups had directed that COVID-19 vaccines donated to African countries should have a minimum of 10 weeks shelf life when they arrive. The expired vaccines were at least six weeks away from expiration.
In the opinion of this newspaper, the ministry of health still needs to do a better job of managing the few vaccine doses available to the country. Maybe Nigerians would appreciate it more if the vaccines had been bought rather than donated. As things stand today, Nigeria has only vaccinated four percent of its population. If the country cannot increase its rate of vaccination, it will likely face more isolation in the world of international travel affecting virtually every aspect of life.
Already, a number of countries have placed travel restrictions on Nigeria, not necessarily because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, but because vaccine certificates from the country are not trusted. The cost of these restrictions is proving too much to bear. Many Nigerians are dependent on travel for trade, healthcare, education and tourism. Nigeria cannot avoid to be left out in the drive to vaccinate enough citizens. This is why the federal government needs to coordinate better with states and even local governments in distributing vaccines and encouraging citizens to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But with the integrity of the vaccines in doubt, it becomes apparent why there is a pervasive resistance to the vaccination programme.