A major Nigerian news outlet, Punch, reported on Saturday that the World Health Organization (WHO), through the COVAX global initiative, had “failed to shortlist Nigeria for the Pfizer vaccines following the country’s inability to meet the standard requirement of being able to store the vaccines at the required -70 degrees Celsius”. But this is misleading.
The paper cited the remarks of WHO’s African Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti at a virtual press conference held two days earlier. “Moeti said WHO could not risk the Pfizer vaccines being wasted,” it wrote.
“Around 320,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been allocated to four African countries – Cape Verde, Rwanda, South Africa and Tunisia,” the Regional Director had said, adding that 13 countries on the continent had shown interest. Punch Newspaper suggested that Nigeria was one of those countries.
COVAX was launched in April 2020 by WHO in response to the COVID-19 pandemic “to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to COVID-19 vaccines once they are available, regardless of their wealth”. It is coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and WHO.
Nigeria set to receive 16m vaccine doses
The COVAX Facility, on Wednesday, published an interim distribution forecast for 337 million vaccines in the first half of 2021 to about 145 countries based on current supply volume estimates. About 90 million of these vaccines are destined for Africa.
According to the document, Nigeria is expected to receive a little over 16 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, starting from late February.
This is, however, “non-binding” and subject to WHO’s Emergency Use Listing (EUL) approval, validation by the Independent Allocation of Vaccine Group (IAVG), variations in supply volumes, the country’s state of preparedness, and other logistics.
The preliminary allocations to four countries, Benin, Grenada, Haiti, and St. Lucia, are on hold pending the final evaluation of their vaccine requests.
So was Nigeria disqualified?
In the same publication about distribution forecasts, the COVAX Facility explained what went on with the “disqualification”.
“On 6 January, COVAX offered the opportunity to all Facility participants who had not already opted-out of this product to express their interest in accessing an initial limited volume of the ultra-cold chain vaccine from PfizerBioNTech,” it said.
By the deadline of Jan. 18, the Facility had received 72 submissions, including 36 from self-financing participants and 36 from Advance Market Commitment (AMC) participants such as Nigeria who will be receiving donor support.
Six regional review committees having officials from WHO, UNICEF, Gavi, and members of Gavi’s Independent Review Committee assessed the applications to determine countries that qualified.
“Given the limited doses, the complexities related to rolling-out a vaccine requiring ultra-cold chain, and to ensure maximum public health impact, a decision was made to limit the number of countries for first deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in order to enable successful distribution and delivery,” the Facility explained.
WHO led the review process using four qualities: the readiness of the countries, whether or not they had started vaccinating (those who had not started were preferred), pricing preferences of self-financing countries, and assessment of the risk of health workers due to exposure.
HumAngle watched the online press briefing organised by WHO Africa on the pandemic and observed that Dr Moeti did not mention Nigeria by name nor state that the country was among the 36 AMC participants or 13 African countries that applied for the Pfizer vaccines. Gavi has noted there are up to 92 low- and middle-income countries across the world eligible to get COVID vaccines through the AMC facility.
Perhaps realising this mistake, Punch Newspaper on Saturday evening updated the title of its report from “WHO disqualifies Nigeria, eight others from global vaccine bid” to “Pfizer vaccines: Nigeria loses out as WHO shortlists Rwanda, South Africa, others”.
’16 million’ allocation still intact
The assessment phase led by WHO was for a much smaller amount of vaccines (320,000 for African countries), different from the forecast which estimated that Nigeria would receive 16 million doses from the COVAX Facility.
Another point to note is that the “limited doses” are of the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be stored in ultra-cold freezers with temperatures ranging between -80°C and -60°C. Nigeria does not have many such freezers available at its facilities but has moved to reverse this.
The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine which has been allocated to Nigeria, on the other hand, does not need extra preservation measures. It “can be distributed using existing logistics and stored in normal refrigerators”.
Debunked by WHO Nigeria
Reacting to the publications, WHO’s Representative to Nigeria, Dr Walter Kazadi Mulombo, wrote that the global health organisation could not prevent a member-state from benefiting from vaccine distribution exercises.
“WHO is part of Covax facility and can never disqualify a Member State from accessing an approved vaccine for their population. I call upon members of the press in Nigeria and globally to contribute to fighting misinformation,” he tweeted on Saturday.
Special Assistant to Nigeria’s President on Digital and New Media, Tolu Ogunlesi, also debunked the report.
“So we’ve seen Covax modify initial distribution arrangement for Nigeria. But timelines [are] so far intact,” he said, adding that Nigeria also plans to benefit from the African Union COVID vaccine project.
HumAngle’s analysis shows that it is not confirmed that Nigeria was among the countries “disqualified” by WHO or that the country applied at all. Also, the basis for disqualification was not only the level of preparedness, which only formed a quarter of the scorecard. So far, Nigeria is still in the race to benefit from the COVAX Facility for lower-income economies.