It appears that lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic have been ignored, certainly regarding vaccine distribution. Africa is the only continent where monkeypox is endemic. Yet according to Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, the acting director of Africa CDC, it hasn’t received vaccines for the virus, which is now taking hold in non-endemic countries.
It was hoped that the declaration of a public health emergency by the WHO would encourage more active distribution of resources. However, this hope has not been realised, says Dr Ouma. He stated that the continent should be the first to receive vaccines, to “stop monkeypox at its source”.
Since 1970s Africa has been subject to monkeypox with little support, but as it spreads across the rest of the world it is beginning to gain international interest. According to Dr Ouma the Africa CDC is in talks to get vaccines “as soon as possible”. However, this may already be too late, for Africa and the rest of the world.
There have been 70 suspected monkeypox deaths in Africa. This number is likely underestimated due to limited diagnostic capabilities. Yet public attention is concentrated in nations with increasing cases and no deaths. That is not to say that these unexpected case numbers should be taken lightly, but recalls recent pandemic experience.
As we have seen from the Covid-19 pandemic, when countries are unable to vaccinate their populations, the risk of new variants and infections is increased. However, it seems that the selfish tendency for a kind of vaccine nationalism and self-preservation prevails.
Members of the WHO have pledged over 31 million doses of the smallpox vaccine to be used in smallpox emergencies. These have not been offered to African countries for use against smallpox. Dr Rosamund Lewis of WHO says that some of these are “first generation” vaccines not recommended for monkeypox. She cites “regulatory issues” for some of the member states.
The lack of demonstrable progress from Covid-19 to monkeypox feeds a decidedly pessimistic instinct to wonder what will happen in the next pandemic. We will have to see if international efforts will become more equitable or remain inward-looking.