On August 11, the acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control (Africa CDC), Ahmed Ogwell, announced that the agency was in talks with two partners on making monkeypox vaccines available in Africa.
This announcement follows the decision of the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) to modify the status of the Africa CDC. The amendment empowers Africa CDC to operate as an autonomous public health agency.
In response to this development, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed its opposition. The essence of the Africa CDC amendment will be undone if opposition from the WHO leads the continental agency to jettison some of the capabilities that come with its autonomy. In the interest of Africa, Africa CDC reform must continue as planned while engagement with WHO on gray areas continues.
Additionally, the WHO argued that the Africa CDC would infringe on the global agency’s jurisdiction. He says if the Africa CDC can declare a public health emergency, such power could “trigger more travel and trade restrictions. [from other countries] and isolate the continent”.
The WHO cited examples of travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries by countries mainly in Europe and America when the Omicron variant emerged. This misleading statement could precipitate non-African countries into biases that unnecessarily question the ability of Africa CDC to operate in its newly expanded capacity. Such a weighty statement does not necessarily reflect the good ambitions of Africa CDC.
Countries often impose travel restrictions during public health emergencies to stop the cross-border spread of infections. However, studies show that such measures, when implemented unilaterally, without effective national measures, often fail to achieve their objective. A travel restriction has a negative impact on the economy as it limits trade.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTCC), global travel and tourism spending nearly halved in 2020. Additionally, around 62 million jobs were also lost in travel, tourism and services. associated industries due to strict travel restrictions. The new amendment gives Africa CDC the advantage of being closer to African governments than the WHO in decision-making on public health emergencies. The benefit of this proximity is that it will ensure that decision-making stems from increased collaboration between representatives of AU Member States and Africa CDC. The method of implementing such a declaration can also be carefully achieved so that intracontinental travel and trade are not affected.
The Africa CDC has said it has no intention of making decisions unilaterally without consulting the WHO. A multilateral approach that engages stakeholders ensures that travel and trade restrictions by countries outside the continent are mitigated.
When the Omicron variant of Covid-19 emerged, it was clear that Africa needed more vaccines, not travel restrictions. Unfortunately, it took some time before the continent could make a united plea against such a rigid measure.
To move forward, African countries must be prepared to respond adequately to the next pandemic. A repositioned Africa CDC could begin to develop a public health emergency response system for the continent, including building capacity for local vaccine production. This autonomy will relieve WHO of the burdens that come with dealing with all countries at the same time. Such progress ensures that only measures that apply to the particularity of the continent come into effect during any pandemic.
WHO’s concerns are not insoluble. The enormous potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) shows how successful African countries can be in building a united front to solve their problems.
Existing concerns are moderate and can be resolved through sustained dialogue. WHO must continue to work closely with the Africa CDC while it leaves the continental agency to make its decisions. Travel and trade restrictions exist because many countries mistakenly perceive them as effective measures to deal with public health emergencies. The creation of a stronger Africa CDC, able to protect the interests of its member states, would be in a better position to prevent travel and trade restrictions in the event of an emerging pandemic than an GSI.