The United States will increase coronavirus vaccine assistance to 11 African nations, officials said on Thursday, in an effort to prevent future variants and bolster inoculation efforts in the least vaccinated continent.
Through the Initiative for Global Vaccine Access, or Global Vax, the Biden administration will provide “intensive financial, technical and diplomatic support” to African countries that have recently shown the capacity to hasten vaccine uptake, according to a statement from Rebecca Chalif, a spokeswoman for the United States Agency for International Development.
The agency said it selected a group of countries in sub-Saharan Africa — Angola, Eswatini, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia — based on the burden of Covid-19 on their populations, the capacity of their health systems, their readiness to quickly administer vaccine doses in the absence of supply constraints and their ability to effectively deploy additional U.S. investments. The agency had allocated $510 million to support global vaccination programs, and more than half of that funding will be allocated to the first group of African countries.
The Global Vax initiative began in December to help countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, to get more shots into more arms. Even as African countries have received more vaccines, many of them have struggled to distribute them because of a shortage of the ultracold chain freezers needed to keep doses from expiring and because of the difficulties in delivering them to remote towns and villages. Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation have also posed problems.
With the Biden administration’s additional financial assistance, these 11 African countries will receive “increased U.S. government engagement and funding to rapidly assess needs and scale up the rate of vaccination, including support from experts here in the U.S. and in the field,” the statement said.
The latest support from the U.S. government comes as the World Health Organization began sending 42 experts to at least 18 African countries that are facing challenges in administering vaccines. For three to six months — and in some cases up to a year — these experts are set to help countries like Burundi, Ethiopia and Mozambique in financial planning, managing vaccine stocks and improving public health measures.
Currently, just 12 percent of the African population — or 168 million people — have been fully vaccinated, according to the W.H.O., with Africa accounting for just 3.5 percent of the 10.3 billion doses administered globally.
An average of six million people are being vaccinated in Africa weekly, but health officials say that needs to increase to around 36 million if the continent is to reach the shared target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population of every country by the middle of this year.
The disparity in access to vaccines has been a contentious issue over the past year, with African leaders and public health officials accusing rich countries of stockpiling doses and making “a mockery of vaccine equity” by administering booster shots. The debate over vaccine equity, production and distribution came into sharp focus this week when European and African leaders convened in Brussels.
On Friday, the W.H.O. director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that six African countries — Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia — would be the first to get access to the technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines.
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said he welcomed the commitment.
“This is an initiative that will allow us to make our own vaccines and that, to us, is very important,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in a statement. “It means mutual respect, mutual recognition of what we can all bring to the party, investment in our economies, infrastructure investment and, in many ways, giving back to the continent.”