By Associated Press - Thursday, April 1, 2021

BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) - Malawi is vaccinating health care workers, the elderly and those with health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe COVID-19, using the AstraZeneca doses that arrived early in March.

People are lining up to get the jabs at hospitals and clinics in Blantyre, the southern African country’s largest city, in the first phase of the inoculation drive.

Malawi, one of the world’s least developed countries, has launched its vaccine drive with the 360,000 doses that it received through the global COVAX initiative, which aims to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have fair access to vaccines.

Malawi aims to vaccinate about 11 million people of its population of 19 million. Malawi has recorded a cumulative total of 33,525 cases of COVID-19 including 1,116 deaths, accoding to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thaddeus Wright Metera, 63, says he is delighted to be among the first in Malawi to receive the potentially lifesaving jab.

Working as a data processing assistant at Malawi Council for the Handicapped for 18 years ( since February 3, 2003) Metera said he stepped up to get a jab.

“Persons with disability face strength challenges in their bodies. If this pandemic infects us, I realized it will be a challenge and as such I thought of coming to receive this vaccine so that I am protected,” said Metera. “I meet a lot of people including parents of children with disability. I am the first person they meet at the institution and that puts me at a risk to COVID-19. As such, I am so delighted to get the vaccine.”

Many Malawians, like Metera, are enthusiastic to get the AstraZeneca shots, although nearby South Africa scrapped its use of the vaccine because a small, preliminary test showed that it was relatively ineffective in protecting against mild to moderate forms of COVID-19 caused by the variant dominant in South Africa. It is not known how much that variant has spread in Malawi.

Many African nations planned to use the AstraZeneca vaccine because it was affordable and it can be kept in ordinary refrigerators. The COVAX initiative had planned to distribute hundreds of millions of AstraZeneca vaccines across Africa. But the continued rollout of the vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India has been delayed.

COVAX has shipped some 31 million doses to roughly 60 countries in recent weeks and had previously announced plans to ship 237 million AstraZeneca doses by the end of May, part of plans to deploy some 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines worldwide this year.

But vaccine supply concerns have weighed in particularly on hard-hit countries like those in the European Union and in India in recent weeks, with some countries threatening to ban vaccines from leaving their borders. EU officials are locked in a bitter dispute with AstraZeneca over delayed deliveries while India has said it needs more doses made by the Serum Institute to stop the recent surge of cases there.

UNICEF, which has a key role in deploying the COVAX vaccines, says supply schedules to the 60 countries that have received doses are affected by the delays from the Indian company and it’s unclear when they might be fixed.

Malawi must acquire millions more vaccines to reach its goal of inoculating 60% of its population. The country will also have to launch a vaccination campaign that will reach into its rural areas, where a majority of its people live.

Malawi Secretary for Health Dr. Charles Mwansambo said the government is trying everything possible to get enough vaccines to inoculate more than the 20% planned for the first phase.

“For us, as a nation to be adequately protected, 20% is not enough. So, we are looking at getting that number to 60% of the population so that we get herd immunity,” he said. “So as a country we are planning to immunize 11 million people so that we can get adequate protection, so that everybody should be adequately protected.”

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