Moderator: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Jeremy Konyndyk, Executive Director of USAID’s COVID-19 Task Force, and Dr. John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mr. Konyndyk and Dr. Nkengasong will discuss partnerships for the global effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic on the African continent. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Mr. Konyndyk and Dr. Nkengasong, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the briefing.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Jeremy Konyndyk, Executive Director of USAID’s COVID-19 Task Force. Mr. Konyndyk?
Mr. Konyndyk: Thank you so much, Tiffany, and good morning from here in Washington, D.C. Good afternoon to everyone in Africa on the line. I’m really pleased to speak with all of you today about the U.S. Government’s work to support the COVID-19 response in Africa and to – also to help lead the wider world out of this pandemic. And the work that the U.S. Government and that USAID are supporting in Africa to fight COVID-19 is going to be, I think, helpful and vital to the process of ending this pandemic both on the African continent and in the wider world, and it builds on decades of experience that USAID has in leading complex global health responses, complex outbreak responses, and working in partnership with African countries.
I have some background in that in 2014 and 2015, when I last worked for the U.S. Government, I helped to lead the response to the West Africa Ebola outbreak and saw the power of partnership between the U.S. Government and African counterparts in working with the three governments in West Africa, in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, that were most heavily affected by that outbreak. And the lesson I took very clearly from that is this is really a partnership situation, not a need situation. It is something where we are working not primarily as donors but primarily as partners with our counterparts in Africa. And of course Dr. Nkengasong is one of our key partners in Africa. The institution that he leads was created in part as a response to and a reaction to what we saw in Ebola in West Africa, and it is just phenomenally powerful, I think, to have that kind of partnership between the U.S. and African institutions.
Last week, President Biden announced that the U.S. will be donating half a billion Pfizer vaccines through the COVAX initiative to the AU and to additional low- and middle-income countries that make up part of the COVAX advanced market commitment, the 92 countries in that group. This is the largest-ever donation of vaccines by any country in history and it further solidifies America’s commitment to saving lives and to helping lead the world out of this pandemic.
We’ll work with COVAX in distributing these vaccines and we will obviously consult with partners in Africa and with Dr. Nkengasong and his team on our vaccine work on the continent. We are also actively consulting with the Africa CDC and the AU on the distribution of 80 million vaccine doses that we previously announced, so that will bring so far the total U.S. vaccine dose donations to 580 million doses globally between the sharing of U.S. vaccines and the purchase of the new Pfizer vaccines. And that builds of course on 2 billion that the U.S. had already announced as a contribution to Gavi, the vaccine alliance for the COVAX platform.
We’re also doing a great deal of other work in African countries to support both the COVID-19 response and some – and address some of the wider non-health impacts of the pandemic. So, to date, the U.S. has provided $541 million across 45 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is supporting things like strengthening national health institutions, supporting access and distribution of critical support and medicines, supporting risk communication, vaccine readiness, community outreach, improved surveillance, and a range of other things.
We are also providing non-health assistance, so we have pivoted much of our development portfolio to more directly address some of the challenges posed by COVID-19, and I’m – and we have also been providing enhanced support to some of the humanitarian crisis situations that have worsened as a result of the pandemic. And I’m proud today to share that the U.S. is announcing an additional $91 million of support to health, food, water, and other humanitarian requirements in 12 African countries with resources from the American Rescue Plan. So this will do a range of things to support populations whose humanitarian needs have been greatly worsened by the pandemic and by the associated disruptions to social services and security in some places by the pandemic. It will meet pressing humanitarian needs in places like South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo, and a number of other countries, and there will be a fact sheet released during this call that you can refer to afterwards that has more detail on that donation.
I think what that underscores is that we are trying, as much as we can, to take a holistic response to the pandemic. We are providing a great deal of health response. We will be providing additional support on the health front in the months ahead as well to bolster what we’re doing on the vaccine front, to improve country – to enhance country readiness, and also to support some of the immediate clinical and public health needs of fighting the pandemic while we also simultaneously support the vaccine effort. But we also recognize that for many people around the world, the second – the so-called secondary impacts of the pandemic, the impact on their education, their livelihoods, their local economy, are also primary impacts. And so through our support announced today and other work that we’re doing through our development portfolio, we are trying to support all of the ways that this pandemic is affecting people’s lives both in the health sphere and outside of it.
And this builds on decades of U.S. partnership with Africa, so it is a real pleasure for me to be here today with one of our key partners, Dr. John Nkengasong, and I will stop there and turn it over to him and I look forward to answering your questions. Thank you.
Dr. Nkengasong: So, Jeremy, should I just take it from there?
Mr. Konyndyk: Go for it.
Dr. Nkengasong: Okay, good. Thank you. Thank you so much, Jeremy, and good to see you. Greetings from the heart of the African Union and from Africa CDC specifically. As a continent, to date we have recorded 5 – slightly above – officially, of course, 5 million cases of COVID-19 across the continent with a mortality number of 136,000 people. What is unique with this pandemic in Africa is that several countries as we speak, about 15 of them, are racing towards the third wave, and a couple of them actually are moving into the fourth wave.
I think if you were to ask me to characterize our experience with this pandemic after one year and a half, I would say that it is terribly unprecedented; it is unpredictable; and for Africa, also that it is a volatile situation. We might actually be sitting on a volcano here to erupt if we do not do the right things and do them quickly, and that the impact of this pandemic on the continent, the effect will be generational in terms of the disruption that it has caused for our economies, our health systems, and schools and other sectors. They are extremely uncertain times that we are living on the continent.
Just a few weeks ago we saw the trend, a downward trend, and then suddenly an aggressive upward trend, and we don’t know how – where the peak will be. But what we know for sure on the continent is that we’ve gone now through three waves and they – a wave is – the peak of any wave is usually higher than the previous wave, and there are usually more deaths resulting from the waves. If we look at the first wave on the continent, it was very difficult to find people who knew people that had died of COVID, but now it is very common to know – nearly everybody knows of somebody who has died of COVID on the continent, and there are certain hotspots that are extremely troubling. I think that is one.
The second thing is generally, globally, how – what the lessons, at least the key lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic is the connectivity that we have as humanity and as the planet, the vulnerability that we – this virus has taught us that we are very, very vulnerable, very, very interconnected regardless of where we are, whether you live in the global north or you live in the global south, and the inequities that exist within the continent between countries and between regions. I think that is – clearly, we knew they were there, but this virus has further exposed that in an unprecedented manner.
Let me then reflect on where do we go from here. I think – I believe strongly that we have the solutions to win this battle in our hands if we do three things: if we really show and exercise global cooperation; if we exercise greater coordination; and if we show greater solidarity. That is why the announcement by the Biden administration on the – that they would make available 500 million doses of vaccines and other vaccines, the commitments to the continent to fight this battle, is extremely welcome. We do appreciate that.
The world has always been in a good place in terms of health security when the U.S. leadership has been visible. I mean, I speak this as an experienced HIV researcher for 29 years and seen the power of America in helping Africa to fight another pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is still there, I mean, even though we don’t talk about it so much, and that is one of those impacts that I referred to – the effect of this terrible disease to be felt even beyond COVID itself. I mean, the areas of our ability and struggle and challenges to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria will all – the effect will be felt in those areas for years to come.
And I remember that as a young public health expert working in Cote d’Ivoire in the mid-‘90s, how desperate the continent was in the ability to or inability, if you want, to access lifesaving antiretroviral treatment. HIV drugs were available at that time, and it would take up to when programs like the bold and courageous steps were taken by the U.S. administration to launch PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, that we started seeing the situation reverse. At that time, life expectancy in many African countries was in a free fall, but with the launch of PEPFAR and Global Fund, I mean, lives started being saved, economies were rescued. At that time, if you recall, the UN for the first time issued a resolution characterizing HIV/AIDS as a security threat.
We find ourselves in that situation today and we believe that, as you rightly said, partnership is the solution. I mean strong partnership, genuine partnership with strong leadership, and especially that led by the United States Government is going to be a solution that will work us out, especially with the ability to access vaccines in a fairly, timely, and scalable manner on the continent.
Thank you. I look forward to a very exciting conversation.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Konyndyk and Dr. Nkengasong. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.
For those asking questions, please indicate if you would like to ask a question by clicking the “Raise Hand” button. Alternatively, you can type the question directly into the Q&A tab. Please type in your name, location, and affiliation along with your question. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: partnerships for the global effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent. We have received some questions submitted in advance by email. Please be considerate to other journalists on the call and make your questions as brief as possible in the interest of time.
Our first question will go to Pearl Matibe from Power FM in South Africa. Pearl, would you like to ask your question, please?
Question: Thank you very much for both of you, Dr. Nkengasong and Jeremy, for being available today. My question is, Dr. Nkengasong, can you explain for us how did the African Union dig itself out of the supply chain problem that you found yourself in early in 2020 when the pandemic began, and where are you now with this continental plan to deploy vaccines? We know that, for instance, South Africa has been set back by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for example, and are now kind of behind for the – sort of for the pace. How do you plan and how – what criteria are you going to use to decide which country gets what vaccine, when?
And Jeremy, the 12 countries you spoke of, what criteria did you use to arrive at which those 12 countries are? Thanks.
Dr. Nkengasong: So thank you so much. I must say two things. The title of this conversation is topical, the partnership, and I will add the power of partnership and leadership. Last year when we just started getting ourselves organized as a continent, we were extremely fortunate to have the strong and able leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who at that time was the rotating chair of the African Union. Although he was of course the president of South Africa, he devoted extraordinary time, leadership, and commitment to shaping the continental strategy. He guided us in the ability to mobilize the continent and actually establish the African Medical Supplies Platform, which became an Amazon.com for countries to go in there and procure COVID response commodities which were in absolutely short supply.
I remember at that time ministers of health calling me and saying, John, we have the money but we don’t know where to go buy stuff, including diagnostics. So slowly through that platform we were able to engage, establish that on the – also another form of leadership exercised by the private sector, Mr. Strive Masiyiwa, who really was extremely brilliant in coming out with solutions, innovative solutions with the private sector. So I think that platform is still there and we – it has also enabled the continent to unite through that platform as they manufacture and sell products to that platform in a standardized manner and price to other countries. I think that has been one of the greatest innovations to dig ourselves out of that commodity shortage.
We hope and believe that we’ll get – continue to have the right support from our partners so that that platform becomes even a post-COVID infrastructure for us to fight other diseases, including the ones that really burden us every day: the HIV, the malaria, and tuberculosis. So I think that is one.
With respect to the distribution of vaccines, you know that still under the able leadership of President Ramaphosa, before he left as the rotating chair of the African Union, and he’s now the COVID champion for the continent assigned by his peers, head of states, he established the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team – in abbreviation, AVATT – which through that platform we have secured 220 million doses of Johnson & Johnson and with an option to go up to 400 million. So I think countries can actually go straight to that platform, the AMSP platform, to secure whatever amounts of vaccines that they will need for Johnson & Johnson. So I think the platform is serving us beyond the initial intent of establishing it, and we will use that platform to continue to engage our partners in the distribution of vaccines.
There are several criteria that will be used when we begin to get those vaccines that Jeremy mentioned from the United States: population and needs, okay, and where countries are in the pandemic. I mean, if you look at what is going on now, as I indicated, a series of countries – about 15 – are moving towards the third wave. So if those vaccines were here, that would be a priority. Okay, we’ll be rushing vaccines into those 15 countries speedily.
If you look at the Southern Africa region, they are heading towards the winter season and with the winter arriving there, there is a risk that the numbers will increase because of indoor activities and closeness and we’ll be rushing vaccines there.
If you look at countries that have demonstrated that they can actually use up vaccines quickly, like Rwanda – their vaccines, they got the AstraZeneca vaccines in Rwanda and within one week they were able to use up all of their about 290 million – 290,000 doses. Those are countries that we can support.
And I think so these are criteria that we’ll be using, including population size. I mean, you don’t give the same number of vaccines to a smaller country with a population of 2 million versus a country like Nigeria with 200 million. So you kind of divide those vaccines proportionally to the population in addition to other criteria that I just discussed.
Mr. Konyndyk: And with respect to the selection criteria for the 12 countries I mentioned, so that is funding that is going through our humanitarian office towards some of the health and secondary impacts of COVID-19 in humanitarian crises on the continent. So that is a piece of some of the larger work we’re doing around wider health system strengthening and supporting vaccine readiness and a range of things like that. But those countries were selected based on the severity of the humanitarian need in some of those crisis settings as well as where we saw some of the most concerning impacts of COVID-19 within those settings.
Moderator: Thank you, both of you. A question came in in advance. My. Konyndyk, perhaps you could address it. It’s from Mr. Immanuel Odeyemi from Naija FM in Nigeria, and he asks: “What strategies should be adopted to streamline the global response to the pandemic as a collaborative mechanism by all nations?”
Mr. Konyndyk: Yeah, I think the global collaboration element is a really important part of this. What we are trying to support within our engagement with other – with both partner countries in Africa but also around the world is a need to focus simultaneously on two tracks. One track obviously is accelerating vaccine availability and vaccine readiness, and that is the – that is the support that in the long run, or hopefully in the medium run, will ultimately bring an end to the acute phase of this pandemic. But we also know that that is not going to be an immediate process, and so while we are increasing our investments in vaccine availability and vaccine readiness, we are also increasing our investments in frontline crisis response support and frontline system support so that health systems that are facing surges or health systems that are – that may someday face surges are more ready to do that.
So we are making additional investments in things like oxygen supply, support to PPE and other supply needs for medical providers, frontline medical providers. We are supporting the safety of those providers through those PPE investments and enhanced training. We are investing as well in enhanced surveillance, providing tests and diagnostic supplies so that countries can better detect. That’s a particular priority in sub-Saharan Africa where many countries have very low testing and very low detection rates.
So it’s a both/and strategy that we think is needed that countries need to both, yes, push hard on vaccines but not lose sight in the meantime of a lot of the work that has to be done to save lives through public health interventions and clinical interventions that can start immediately.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Dr. Nkengasong, we have a question that also was sent in advance from Ms. Funmi Falobi from Nigeria. She writes, “How is your organization managing disinformation about COVID-19 vaccine in Africa?”
Dr. Nkengasong: I think COVID vaccine disinformation is a reality and it’s a challenge, and we have a whole team here of communicators and risk communication that is focused on that. I mean scanning the continent and picking up those signals or rumors that needs to be addressed and countered. But unfortunately, through the power of social media, which it has been overwhelming, and I’m really surprised by the ability of the community to lean towards absorbing information that is not accurate than leaning towards good information. And so I think it’s worth that we have to consider very deliberately as we roll out vaccines on the continent.
We have been a little bit challenged in our ability to scale up our campaign for vaccine update because we cannot shake the trees enough and then not show the people where to go get vaccines. So, but as vaccines begin to hopefully arrive in the continent in the coming months, we will up our game in engaging different components of the society to – with respect to risk communication and community engagement and fighting this disinformation and misinformation.
So it is all early days in vaccination on the continent, and we’ll learn as we go and adapt our strategies as we move forward.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next, I would like to open the line for Leon Lidigu, I believe from Nation Media. Can you ask your question, please?
Question: Hello. My question is – my question concerns a number of complaints that I’ve received from Kenyans who applied to go to various countries within the EU and have been denied visa because the EU says that it doesn’t recognize those Africans inoculated with India’s version of AstraZeneca vaccine. So I would love to know what is being done about this, because it’s causing a number of people a lot of inconveniences. Thank you.
Dr. Nkengasong: So let me take that, Leon. And our position as the African Union is clear that we are not encouraging yet the imposition of vaccine certificates for travel. I mean, we have engaged with the European Union on that. It’s a very – it’s a clear, specific position and the rationale is simple: that we just don’t have access to vaccines. So how do we – how do you penalize somebody that they should have their vaccine certificate where they are looking for those vaccines to get themselves immunized and conform? So I think there will be a period where, I mean, the whole world has been vaccinated to a certain level, and then we use that vaccine certificate as an extra incentive to get everybody across the board, just like we do for yellow fever vaccination across to – for traveling.
So our position is clear. There is not much I can add to that.
Moderator: Okay. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of our time. I was just wondering if, Mr. Konyndyk, if you have any closing remarks, and after that Dr. Nkengasong.
Mr. Konyndyk: Sure, just very briefly, and thanks to all of you for joining here today. We are as the U.S. Government very committed to accelerating the availability of global vaccines but also to accelerating and expanding our support to health systems in the immediate term to help to fight this pandemic, and it’s really going to take both. We need – we as the world need to fight this virus in every way that we can, and vaccines are the fight in the medium and long term. But in the near term it’s also going to be through things like good public health behaviors, distancing behaviors, and in all the tools that we have available to slow transmission while we – while the vaccine availability increases.
And so we are going to push hard in our support to both make vaccines available, support the delivery of those vaccines, but also to support the health systems and the frontline health workers who are battling this pandemic every day. And we are just hugely appreciative of all the work of the health professionals in African countries who are facing this, who are facing new surges now, as we heard about in South Africa and Southern Africa and in other parts of the continent, and we will continue to stand with our partners in Africa, starting with the Africa CDC and with health ministries across the continent as we work together to fight this battle.
Dr. Nkengasong: Three concluding, brief messages. One is to an entire continent that they adopt a joint continental strategy that we all endorse, that all ministers of health came together in an emergency meeting on May the 8th and agreed that we need to adjust our strategy and focus on, as Jeremy said, on enhanced prevention, which means using the public health measures that we know work, and then, of course, supplementing that with the arrival of vaccines. That is under the prevention pillar. Second is enhanced monitoring: make sure that we conduct active surveillance in the community to find the hotspots and squash them, and then couple that with surveillance for new variants. And then thirdly, enhanced treatment: make sure that we equip all our facilities with basic things like oxygen and other COVID-related treatment commodities.
That is the way to go for the continent to fight this – the arrival of the third wave and the fourth wave. That is a basic fundamental roadmap that we at the Africa CDC have developed.
My second message to conclude is the power of partnership and humanity. I believe that with the strong partnership that we have with the United States Government, we will prevail. I mean, we have prevailed as a continent under the PEPFAR, under the President’s Malaria Initiative, and we really look forward to that. That is our – this is about health security, and if we are affected, no country will be safe until all countries are safe.
And lastly is the U.S. power of leadership. Each time the United States Government have upped their game and exercised leadership, the world has been in a better place in global health. And I think this time around, we as a continent will continue to rely on that effective partnership and leadership to win this battle against COVID-19, which we must win as a humanity to survive.
Thank you for the opportunity for including me as part of this discussion.
Moderator: Thank you very much, and that concludes today’s call. I want to thank Jeremy Konyndyk, Executive Director of USAID’s COVID-19 Task Force, and Dr. John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. Thank you.