Microsoft founder Bill Gates on Sunday praised Africa’s response to the novel coronavirus but warned against collateral damage, including a drastic increase in extreme poverty.
Mr. Gates said the COVID-19 pandemic has “had huge setbacks”, and in some cases, has erased “literally decades of progress”, including a drop of 14 percent of vaccination rates in developing countries. He estimated that the pandemic has erased about 20 years of progress, resulting in many other collateral damage, including mental health and education.
In an interview on “Fox News Sunday“, Mr. Gates said Africa has kept the number of COVID-19 infections and fatalities down compared to what was forecast by international agencies, including the United Nations.
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Last April, the UN projected in a report that about 300,000 Africans would die from the novel coronavirus.
The United Nations Economic Commission of Africa (UNECA) estimated that at least 300,000 Africans were going to die from the virus and 29 million could be pushed into extreme poverty.
Bill Gates said those projections have not come to pass when it comes to the virus itself, although about 37 million people have been pushed back into extreme poverty.
“The actual death toll in the poorest countries, including most of Africa, has actually not been super high. The population is very young, and other than South Africa, the numbers have been less than was forecast,” Mr. Gates told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
But he lamented that because of the fragility of Africa’s health system, which has made it difficult for children to be vaccinated during the pandemic, more children are now at risk of malaria and diarrhea.
“Both the vaccination rates have gone down by over 14 percent, which takes us back in time over two decades,” he said, adding that extreme poverty which has been going down in the past few decades, has gone up again, sending around 37 million people back in extreme poverty.
“The breadth of the negative impact – mental health, education, economic, and other health things, not just COVID directly, are more greater than I expected before we started to pull the report together,” he said.
“It really underscores that really we’ve got to bring this pandemic to an end, not just in a few rich countries, but the entire world,” Mr. Gates told Mr. Wallace.
He said once the pandemic is brought under control, it would take ‘special efforts’ to build back on that positive track.
Gates’ interview came as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving $650 million to fight the disease, the largest commitment by any independent foundation.
The money, he said, is mainly going toward ensuring that once vaccines are approved, they are able to be manufactured for poor countries as well as more developed countries like the United States.
“We’re helping seed some R&D money very quickly for the best vaccine approaches, and then making sure that, when we get a vaccine, it’s not just for the rich countries,” Gates told Chris Wallace.
The Africa Center for Disease Control said on Sunday evening that nearly 34,000 people have died from the virus in Africa and 1.1 million people have been affected.
Globally, nearly 31 million people have contracted the deadly bug and over 958,000 people have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University virus tracker.
Africa is not being left out of the race for a vaccine, and late last week, the Regional Expert Committee on Traditional Medicine for COVID-19 formed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the African Union Commission for Social Affairs endorsed a protocol for phase III clinical trials of herbal medicine for COVID-19 as well as a charter and terms of reference for the establishment of a data and safety monitoring board for herbal medicine clinical trials.
“Just like other areas of medicine, sound science is the sole basis for safe and effective traditional medicine therapies,” said Dr Prosper Tumusiime, Director of Universal Health Coverage and Life Course Cluster at WHO Regional Office for Africa.
“The onset of COVID-19, like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, has highlighted the need for strengthened health systems and accelerated research and development programmes, including on traditional medicines,” said Dr Tumusiime.
A statement said “the endorsed technical documents are aimed at empowering and developing a critical mass of technical capacity of scientists in Africa to conduct proper clinical trials to ensure quality, safety and efficacy of traditional medicines in line with international standards.”
“Phase III clinical trials are pivotal in fully assessing the safety and efficacy of a new medical product. The data safety and monitoring board will ensure that the accumulated studies data are reviewed periodically against participants’ safety. It will also make recommendations on the continuation, modification or termination of a trial based on evaluation of data at predetermined periods during the study,” read the statement received by TODAY NEWS AFRICA in Washington DC.
Dr Tumusiime said if a traditional medicine product is found to be safe, efficacious and quality-assured, WHO will recommend for a fast-tracked, large-scale local manufacturing, adding that through the African Vaccine Regulatory Forum, there is now a benchmark upon which clinical trials of medicines and vaccines in the region can be assessed and approved in fewer than 60 days.
“The adoption of the technical documents will ensure that universally acceptable clinical evidence of the efficacy of herbal medicines for the treatment of COVID-19 are generated without compromising the safety of participants,” said Professor Motlalepula Gilbert Matsabisa, the Expert Committee Chairman. He voiced hope that that the generic clinical trial protocol will be immediately used by scientists in the region to ensure that people can benefit from the potential of traditional medicine in dealing with the ongoing pandemic.
The 25-members of the Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicine for COVID-19 are tasked with supporting countries to enhance research and development of traditional medicine-based therapies against the virus and provide guidance on the implementation of the approved protocols to generate scientific evidence on the quality, safety and efficacy of herbal medicines for COVID-19.
The Committee members are from research institutions, national regulatory authorities, traditional medicine programmes, public health departments, academia, medical and pharmacy professions and civil society organizations of Member States.
“It is essential that African countries benefit from the vaccines being developed,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in remarks at the inaugural meeting of the Facilitation Council of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator simply known as ACT-Accelerator, a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.
COVAX is the vaccines pillar of the ACT Accelerator. It is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and WHO. Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
It is a clever initiative as it allows countries and scientists around the world to work together for a common goal rather than pursue individualistic ones that may not be very effective. It also pulls resources together, allowing scientists with good ideas but no money to thrive.
For the initiative to work, countries around the world have to fund it. However, only about 10 percent of fundings needed have been received so far, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, revealed at his regular press briefing from Geneva on Thursday.
Mr. Ramaphosa called on countries around the world to support and fund the ACT-Accelerator, insisting that Africans must just be the recipients of vaccines, but must take full part in their developments.
“The clinical testing of the vaccines needs to include African populations to ensure that the vaccines are appropriate for Africans.
“We cannot achieve universal health coverage when the COVID-19 vaccine is available only to countries that are well resourced in terms of research, manufacturing, distribution and service,” Ramaphosa told the inaugural meeting of the Facilitation Council of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator that had in attendance Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr António Guterres, Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister of Norway and Co-Chair of the Facilitation Council, Ms Erna Solberg, Chair of NEPAD and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
He said: “As long as someone in the world has the new coronavirus, however remote they may be, we are all at risk from the resurgence of COVID-19.
“We therefore need to move swiftly to ensure everyone has access to a vaccine at the same time.
“Countries must together support current global initiatives to fund COVID-19 vaccines.
“We should use all available infrastructure to conduct research to find safe and effective vaccines.
“The efforts by WHO to enable collaboration among scientists to conduct clinical trials is very welcome.
“We all need to support these global efforts because they are likely to massify the availability of vaccines that are appropriate for specific locations and populations.
“We must also incentivise vaccine development, especially for pharmaceutical companies. They may be concerned that it will not be profitable.
“As some have already done, governments may need to subsidize the development of vaccines as an incentive to ensure fast and adequate production.
“As a global community, we must encourage people to participate in safe clinical trials of different vaccines.
“The ACT-Accelerator is vital to the achievement of these goals.
“It offers us the requisite tools at the speed and scale needed and an equitable mechanism to distribute them.
“Now that it is a proven, functioning mechanism, we must waste no time in rallying to support it with the political and, crucially, the financial resources it needs to succeed.
“As South Africa and on behalf of the African Union, we look forward to this cooperation and working with all States and partners to achieve our collective objectives.”