BY Jonathan Nda- Isaiah, Michael Oche and  PATIENCE IVIE IHEJIRIKA, Abuja

Nigeria is set to receive the largest allocation of 16million doses out of the 88million AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine doses allocated to African countries in the first phase by the end of February instead of the initial 100,000 Pfizer doses earlier expected, the World Health Organisation (WHO) hinted yesterday.

WHO country representative in Nigeria, Dr Walter Kazadi Mulomboo, disclosed this at an emergency press briefing yesterday in Abuja while debunking a report that Nigeria had been disqualified from accessing COVID-19 vaccines.

He said the demand for the initial allocation of 1.2 million Pfizer doses was exceptionally high, adding that COVAX received interests from 72 countries from which 51 countries were considered by the review committee as “ready”.

According to him, Nigeria is among these countries and 18 countries were finally chosen to receive the initial Pfizer doses.

He said, “On the Africa continent, as of the 18th January deadline, COVAX received 13 submissions and a multi-agency committee evaluated the proposals of which nine were recommended as ready to deploy the Pfizer vaccines including Nigeria.

“Unfortunately, it was not feasible to provide each of these 51 countries with Pfizer doses, due to a number of factors including the limited capacity for Pfizer to handle many countries at once. Therefore, spreading the limited doses across all the 51 countries deemed ‘ready’ could have not achieved the intended public health benefit.

“After epidemiological data was taken into account, the decision was taken to proportionally balance the number of self-financing and AMC participants, as well as participants across all six WHO regions.”

WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, had said during a press briefing on Thursday that to access an initial limited volume of Pfizer vaccines, countries were invited to submit proposals, adding that 13 African countries submitted proposals and were evaluated by a multi-agency committee based on current mortality rates, new cases and trends and the capacity to handle the ultra-cold chain needs of the vaccine.

Mulomboo said currently, all countries on the continent are expected to start accessing the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines by the end of February.

He, however, noted that the vaccines were under review by the WHO for emergency use listing, adding that the outcome is expected soon.

“Of the 88 million AstraZeneca doses allocated to African countries for the first phase, Nigeria has received by far the largest allocation, with 16 million doses.

“In addition to the Astra Zeneca doses, there is an initial limited volume of Pfizer vaccines available through COVAX.”

Explaining why Nigeria was not among the few African countries to receive the Pfizer vaccines, the executive director of National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Faisal Shuaib, said there was a number of factors that were considered in allocating the small quantity of the 320,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines to Covax countries.

These factors, according to him, include the mortality rates from COVID-19, the number of new cases, the trend in the number of cases, the population of countries and the availability of the appropriate cold chain equipment.

“It is clear that countries such as South Africa which received the Pfizer allocation have the new strain of the COVID-19 virus, has the highest mortality rate and is struggling to contain transmission. Furthermore, giving smaller countries such as Cape Verde and Rwanda a few doses of the Pfizer vaccines would have a larger public health impact considering their population sizes.

“100,000 doses to Nigeria, we have all agreed would have been a drop in the ocean. So, it is a welcome development that we are receiving 16m doses of the Astrazeneca vaccines to replace the Pfizer vaccines in the same month of February. The 16m doses will invariably help us reach more of our population and is suited to our existing cold chain system.

“Many of you were with us at the National Strategic Cold Store to physically see the ultra-cold chain equipment we have. That visit was conducted in the spirit of transparency and accountability on the part of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF) and Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH).”

Shuaib stated that the ultra-cold chain equipment would have been able to store over 400,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccines if they were brought to Nigeria.

“So we are ready for any type of vaccines allocated to us,” he added.

He reiterated the federal government’s commitment to acquiring COVID-19 vaccines that are safe, effective and available for deployment.

“This emergency briefing became necessary in order to ensure that just a few of us do not bring our country to ridicule,” he said.