COVID-19 in Africa: New Variants Drive Third Wave, Renewing Calls for U.S. Response

July 1, 2021 By Alexis-Clair Roehrich and Jessica Ritchie

As the United States and other countries are increasingly vaccinated and reopening their economies, 20 countries across Africa are facing a third wave that could be the “worst yet.”

The IMF reports that COVID-19 infections in sub-Saharan Africa are the fastest growing in the world—driven in part by the highly contagious delta variant—and hospitals are already at capacity in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda, highlighting the urgent need for a global response to prevent new variants of the coronavirus from spreading.

Moving Doses from Runways into Arms

Only about 1.1% of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated to date. According to the WHO, the continent needs an additional 215 million doses to fully vaccinate 10% of its population and approximately 700 million doses total to inoculate 30% of the population by the end of the year.

At the G7 meetings in early June, the Biden Administration committed to provide 500 million Pfizer coronavirus vaccine doses to 92 low- and lower middle-income countries, including members of the African Union, over the next two years, while other G7 countries pledged to deliver 870 million doses to poorer countries through COVAX. This comes on top of the Administration’s promise to deliver 80 million doses by the end of June, including nearly 10 million that will be shared with African countries in coordination with the African Union.

While vaccine production is crucial to ending the pandemic, moving doses from the runway and into people’s arms will rely on critical country health systems to administer them—an area that might need further support and attention. “The continent as a whole knows how to vaccinate and has been vaccinating for other diseases,” said John Nkengasong, Head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC). “But the key is how do you scale that up and… at speed?”

U.S. Assistance & COVID Relief in Africa

Over the past year, Congress has appropriated almost $18 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding to the State Department and USAID for the diplomatic corps, global health programs, international disaster assistance, refugee support, and economic and stability programs—representing 0.34% of total COVID-19 relief funding. Alongside investments in GAVI’s efforts to provide vaccines to the continent, this assistance has directly supported humanitarian relief in Africa.

  • The State Department has leveraged alliances to strengthen global health through the Global Health Security Agenda and supports ground-level initiatives such as AfrIdea with partners like Pact, which seeks innovative solutions to COVID-related challenges by activating a network of young entrepreneurs and innovators across Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Togo.
  • USAID is providing ventilators and other essential medical equipment, establishing and strengthening key health systems, and supporting vaccine distribution through COVAX. In June 2021, USAID’s COVID-19 Task Force Executive Director Jeremy Konyndyk also announced more than $91 million in food assistance, health care, water, and support for people across Africa.
  • The U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC) is catalyzing up to $5 billion in investment to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and build health resilience, including a partnership to strengthen Africa’s vaccine and pharmaceutical development. Its Rapid Response Liquidity Facility is also providing up to $4 billion to existing projects related to the pandemic. For example, DFC has facilitated financing through a Citi framework agreement that is helping New York-based Gradian Health Systems to design, distribute and maintain medical equipment for low-resource conditions in Benin, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

This whole of U.S. government effort is helping to address the humanitarian impacts of the global pandemic by building on more than $100 billion in health investments deployed across sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years.

Congressional Response to COVID-19

There is growing bipartisan support in Congress for the U.S. to take a stronger leadership role in global vaccine distribution. Senator Kennedy (R-LA) emphasized in a recent Senate Appropriations Committee hearing: “Our single most important priority for the rest of the year is going to be to vaccinate the world…Let’s show the world what American leadership is all about.” Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Senator Leahy (D-VT), and Senator Van Hollen (D-MD) were among several others who added their agreement.

At the USGLC’s Global Impact Forum, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) praised the U.S. for stepping up as a global health leader: “If we look at what I think was a fantastic announcement from the Biden Administration in distributing hundreds of millions of vaccines around the world to deal with a pandemic… The United States is doing it in line with our values, no strings attached, because it’s the right thing to do.”

The Senate has also taken steps to ensure the United States is better prepared for future pandemics. In late June, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NY) and Jim Risch (R-ID), the Democratic Chairman and the lead Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced their International Preparedness Pandemic and COVID-19 Response Act of 2021 that aims to improve global health and pandemic preparedness and enhance COVID-19 response efforts.

As the House debates appropriate architecture for pandemic preparedness, there is no companion bill in the House yet. However, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY) has signaled his support for U.S leadership on a global health response, noting, “Over the past few years, global health security has become increasingly tied to US national security… Having a coordinated whole of government approach to prepare for and respond to these threats is critical.”

Read more about Areas of Consensus and Key Facts for Combating COVID-19

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