Dr Brenda Okware, Scientific Coordinator of the COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition, was recently featured on Canada’s Most Listened-to Radio Program, The Current hosted by Matt Galloway on CBC Radio.
She discussed recent COVID-19 developments in Uganda as well as equitable access to vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.
MG: Let’s head to Africa now, where Uganda is being hit hard with its second wave of covid. Access to vaccines is also a serious problem there. Dr. Brenda Okware is a public health specialist in Uganda. She’s also the scientific coordinator of the covid-19 Clinical Research Coalition. This is an international collective trying to help countries with fewer resources manage the pandemic. The doctor is in Kampala. Good morning to you.
DR. BRENDA OKWARE: Hello.
MG: Tell me about the second wave of covid in Uganda. How bad is the spread of the disease in your country right now?
DR. BRENDA OKWARE: All right. So we we just had our first cases of covid last year in about March. And at that time, the government had been very proactive about taking measures to control the pandemic. So the borders had been closed, restrictions had been put in place, and they were building up on their previous preparedness for an outbreak. This was because of the ongoing threat from Ebola from the neighbouring countries. So we seem to control the pandemic quite well during the first year. So come April, May this year, we start to see another rise in cases. And these were individuals who are presenting in more critical states, requiring more hospital admission and a markedly much faster rate in terms of doubling the number of cases, as well as those requiring hospitalisation. So around about that time, it was obvious that we’re definitely entering into another wave of the of the pandemic. So we’ve seen a two fold increase in death and we’re definitely seeing a higher number of deaths over the entire period. So that is where we are right now. Many of the areas of covid treatment centres that were it as treatment facilities have have or are close to their treatment capacity, that is the situation right now.
MG: What’s the situation when it comes to vaccinations? I mean, how many vaccines have arrived in Uganda and how many people have? What’s the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated?
DR. BRENDA OKWARE: So vaccines have come through the COVAX facility, Anisha donation was close to nine hundred thousand doses, and this, of course, falls short of our target. So the national target was to try and vaccinate close to 21 million people. But they made that prediction, assuming that there would be use in the AstraZeneca, which at the time had been approved for use in the adult population, so 18 and above. So those were the initial targets. So that was our first and main batch or biggest batch of vaccines that we got. And it was rolled out in a staggered approach trying to target those who would be at highest risk based on their occupation, but also taking into consideration things like age. So that was our first batch of vaccine that we received. But of course, it it quickly ran out once we got into the whole drive of the vaccination rollout. So recently and by recently, I mean in the past week, we’ve got another donation of close to one hundred and seventy thousand doses. And this was a donation from France. And this has been rolled out this week. So in total, we are still quite shy of quite short of our target. If you look at the numbers in terms of those who have received at least one, does it close to a million. So a little over nine hundred thousand individuals have received at least the first dose. The second dose is not so great. High numbers are still in in on the lower side. So a little about 70 thousand individuals has received both the first and the second dose.
MG: How eager are people to get the vaccine? I mean, is there any concern with hesitancy or is this really a story about supply?
DR. BRENDA OKWARE: Initially, there was some concern about the vaccine. If you look at the time at which it was rolled out, it was around about the time we’re starting to see incidences of concern amongst individuals who had taken the vaccine, the adverse events that were being seen in some of the individuals. So having to roll out a vaccine with all that background information going on and all the misinformation and the barrage of the flood of information that comes in through multiple sources, there was a little bit of hesitancy initially in the uptake of the vaccine. But as we got as we got more and more into the rollout of the of the vaccine and into a much better what I would say place Ogier, the uptake from the community actually increased. I wouldn’t say it’s yet at its most optimal level, but it definitely increased at least once. People started becoming more and more aware of the actual second wave and its severity and the impact that it would have on them, but also on people that they knew. So there was definitely increase in uptake.
MG: We’ve been talking on this programme about Kovács and the promise of the Kovács initiative to try to vaccinate the entire world. That promise seems to have fallen short in many ways. And yet in this country, in Canada, we’re vaccinating teenagers. Right now, we are working our way through a lot of people who are getting second doses. How do you react knowing that young people in Canada who are at a lower risk of covid-19 are getting vaccines long before some of the most vulnerable people in your population are getting access to a vaccine?
DR. BRENDA OKWARE: When you look at it the first thing that is glaring, of course, is the disparity or the difference in health experiences to to know or to be aware that just because of the location where you are or the the sort of context in which you are you are unable to get the sort of care that you need, that I always find, especially in the field of of health care. That said, different countries and different regions do have their approaches and their strategies on how they are going to deal with the pandemic. But maybe something which they keep forgetting is that this is indeed a global problem. So fixing it in one part of the world, while it’s still not just smouldering but overflowing in another part of the world, does no one any true justice. It will just be a matter of time before it starts emerging and re-emerging in different parts of the world. So such a problem is such a challenge, which is of great global importance or great global impact needs to be addressed globally. And what that means is that everyone who has or who is at risk needs to be able to have equal opportunity to the available resources as well as the available innovations to be able to deal with this pandemic and which in this case happens to be vaccines. And I speak like that from a point of understanding our health system, prevention is our best solution. So anything that would much earlier on prevent us from having to go into that state where we have so many people who we cannot treat, we kind of manage who we do not have resources for, it’s definitely worth putting in maximum resources and maximum emphasis on. So that is that’s what I think. If I could mention just one other thing, General. If you look at maybe the way in which the vaccines have been distributed, I think one of the crucial factors that determines how quick a particular group of individuals is able to access a particular innovation starts from the level of research. So if right from the beginning, even some of these low and middle income countries are part of the research that’s going on into vaccines, are part of developing the solution. Their populations are included in all the early work that goes into the research and development. This in itself will make it even more possible and faster for them to be able to access the different resources. And that is the sort of thing that the Clinical Research Coalition is trying to do just to highlight the needs of low and middle income countries in the ponded.
MG: Doctor, I’m grateful to speak with you. I know that you’re busy and the situation that you’ve described is a very serious one. Thank you for telling us about it. And I wish you the best of luck.
DR. BRENDA OKWARE: Thank you so much.
MG: Dr. Brenda Okware is a public health specialist in Uganda and also the scientific coordinator of the covid-19 Clinical Research Coalition. She was in Kampala.