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Did WHO kick Nigeria out of the Covax Covid-19 vaccine programme? Not quite...

It was widely reported that Nigeria would take 100,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine by the end of January 2021.

Faisal Schaib, executive director of the country’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency, said the doses would be delivered in the first phase of the World Health Organization-led Covax initiative.

But that is no longer the case.

Covax works for equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. In early February, the claim that Nigeria had been disqualified from the initiative was spreading online.

The claim was widely shared on Facebook, and broadcast in a barrage of local headlines.

“WHO disqualified Nigeria, eight others from Global Vaccine Bid,” reads the headline of a Sahara Reporters article. PM News went to press with: “Nigeria disqualified from global vaccine bid”.

What really happened with Nigeria’s bid to procure the vaccines? And how close is Africa’s most populous country to securing Covid-19 vaccines?

What is Covax?

In 2020, the Nigerian government said it was excited about receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, assuring citizens that the country already had three pieces of ultra cold chain equipment to store the vaccines at roughly -70º Celsius.

Covax is one of three pillars of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, launched in April 2020 by the WHO, the European Commission and France. The initiative is led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

Small number of doses assigned to four countries

The claim that Nigeria was booted out of Covax stems from a WHO press briefing on 4 February. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said around 320,000 doses of the first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had been allocated to four African countries: Cabo Verde, Rwanda, South Africa and Tunisia.

Moeti said countries were invited to submit proposals to get an initial limited supply of the vaccine. 

Thirteen African countries expressed interest in the initiative, and their proposals were evaluated according to current mortality rates, new cases and trends, and their ability to store the vaccine at the required low temperature.

Media reports interpreted the statement to mean that Nigeria had been disqualified from receiving the vaccine. But Moeti did not mention a disqualification.

‘WHO can’t disqualify a country’

On 6 February Dr Walter Mulombo Kazadi, the WHO’s Nigeria representative, tweeted that the organisation could “never disqualify a Member State from accessing an approved vaccine for their population”.

He added: “I call upon members of the press in Nigeria and globally to contribute to fighting misinformation.”

“Kindly disregard this story, as it is a distortion of the information at the WHO Press Conference,” it tweeted. The agency will be responsible for deploying vaccines when they come.

Covax criteria not met 

Oyewale Tomori is a professor of virology and former president of the Nigeria Academy of Science. He led the country’s efforts to eradicate wild polio.

He said Nigeria did not qualify for the first batch of Pfizer vaccines, based on Covax’s criteria of current mortality rates, new cases and ability to store the vaccine at -70º C.

Tomori sent us a summary of the WHO’s Covax interim vaccine distribution forecast, dated 3 February 2021.

As of 5 February, Nigeria had a smaller number of cases per million than the four African countries selected to receive the vaccines: Cape Verde, Tunisia, Rwanda and South Africa. It also had the least case fatality rate, behind Cape Verde.

And Nigeria also didn’t have its paperwork in place.

“As of 15 December 2020, Nigeria was the only country that had neither signed commitment agreements to the Covax facility nor submitted non-binding conformations of intent to participate in the Covax Facility,” Tomori told Africa Check.

The final supply of the vaccines to the approved countries is still subject to caveats.

Millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses

But Nigeria’s hunt to procure vaccines is not over yet.

“We have already started talking with other sources for vaccines rather late in the day. Other countries finished talking and paid months ago,” Tomori said.

The WHO says it’s expected that all African countries will begin to have access to AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, co-invented by University of Oxford, by the end of February.

Kazadi said the vaccine was under review by the global health body for emergency use listing. Nigeria is expected to get 16 million doses of the initial 88 million AstraZeneca vaccines assigned to Africa – the largest allocation to any country.

If this fails, Tomori said, “I’d say we wait a bit, see what is happening and then shop around for other vaccines from Russia and China.”

Meanwhile, Prof Babatunde Salako, director general of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, told Africa Check that research into a local Covid-19 vaccine candidate was still on. 

“We are awaiting reagents for the second stage,” he said.

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