South Africa: train used to vaccinate

Passenger rail transport is as good as dead in South Africa, and the state-owned transport company Transnet is in a coma. But what is actually a disaster is in this case a blessing: Because the "Transvaco" train can now jog through the area in peace and quiet without being startled by an express train. For days now, the train's gleaming white wagons have been parked on track 1 at a station which is located almost 40 kilometers east of Johannesburg.

A small line of people has formed next to the train cars. Every few minutes, a person disappears into a compartment, only to reappear a little later, beaming. "I have been waiting for this moment for a long time," manager Simphiwe Dyantyi tells Reuters news agency. The 32-year-old could not afford to wait in line for hours to be vaccinated against Covid. On the Transvaco Express, the sting in the upper arm is missed in an instant.

And: The train is about to leave for the deepest province, where people often travel for a whole day to get to a vaccination center. "We don't run out of serum either," says doctor Paballo Mokoena: In several train freezers, more than 100000 vaccine doses are kept at the necessary temperature of almost 80 degrees below freezing.

"Transvaco" is one of the achievements to which South Africa owes its relatively high vaccination rate for local latitudes. In the Cape of Good Hope, one-third of the adult population is now protected with the serum - the African average is just 6.6 percent. The WHO had set a target of at least 40 percent of the population in each of the 55 African countries being vaccinated by the end of this year. But only five countries will reach this target, not even South Africa is among them.

In Africa's poorest countries, just three percent of the population is vaccinated - compared with more than 60 percent in high- and upper-middle-income countries. The disturbing phenomenon has led to the buzzword vaccine apartheid: The world is once again divided - into a largely immune population and one that is not protected.

The rich countries have stocked up on vaccine

At first glance, the reasons seem obvious. The rich nations have secured the overwhelming share of the serums, leaving crumbs for the poor nations. In the eyes of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, vaccine apartheid is also responsible for the new Omicron variant: its emergence was due to low African vaccination rates. "Now our greed is taking its revenge," the Labour politician is convinced.

But it is not quite that simple. South Africa, where the new virus variant was first detected (but did not necessarily emerge), has not suffered from vaccine shortages for a long time. Here, rather, the government faces logistical problems and a skeptical population. Among white South Africans in particular, the number of "anti-vaxxers" is apparently considerable: many do not want to be told what to do by a "black" government. Meanwhile, President Cyril Ramaphosa is also toying with the idea, debated in the North, of ordering the prick in the upper arm by decree.

Many donated vaccines were close to expiration date

In other African countries, the situation is even more confusing. While the lack of vaccines was indeed the biggest problem there until recently, the situation has since eased thanks to numerous vaccine donations - which, however, have again brought new difficulties. Many of the donations were made at short notice and with vaccines that were close to their expiration date. They posed insurmountable logistical challenges for African governments. Hundreds of thousands of expired serums had to be destroyed, as was the case last week in Namibia.

Africa's problems go beyond a mere lack of vaccine: there is a lack of refrigeration capacity, of logistics for distribution, of specialists who can administer the vaccine even in the most remote places. Finally, it is of little use to recipients if they receive millions of doses but have no needles with which to inject the sera into the upper arms of those willing to be vaccinated.

In the longer term, experts agree, Africa needs to produce its own serums in order to plan for the long term. Currently, one percent of the world's vaccines are only filled and packaged on the continent. The continent does not have its own vaccines at all. At Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, researchers are currently busy finding their own recipe for contemporary mRNA vaccines.

Even if they are successful, U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna may stop mass production because of their patents. The two pharmaceutical giants want to set up their own factories in Africa: 1.3 billion people - and rising fast - promise a lucrative market.


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