KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — At a taxi stand by a bustling market in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, traders simply cross a road or two, get a shot in the arm and rush back to their work.
Until this week, vaccination centers were based mostly in hospitals in this East African country that faced a brutal COVID-19 surge earlier this year.
Now, more than a dozen tented sites have been set up in busy areas to make it easier to get inoculated in Kampala as health authorities team up with the Red Cross to administer more than 120,000 doses that will expire at the end of September.
“All of this we could have done earlier, but we were not assured of availability of vaccines,” said Dr. Misaki Wayengera, who leads a team of scientists advising authorities on the pandemic response, speaking of vaccination spots in downtown areas. “Right now we are receiving more vaccines and we have to deploy them as much as possible.”
In addition to the 128,000 AstraZeneca doses donated by Norway at the end of August, the United Kingdom last month donated nearly 300,000 doses. China recently donated 300,000 doses of its Sinovac vaccine, and on Monday a batch of 647,000 Moderna doses donated by the United States arrived in Uganda.
Suddenly Uganda must accelerate its vaccination drive. The country has sometimes struggled with hesitancy as some question the safety of the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine, which is no longer in use in Norway because of concerns over unusual blood clots in a small number of people who received it.
Africa has fully vaccinated just 3.1% of its 1.3 billion people, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health officials across Africa have complained loudly of vaccine inequality and what they see as hoarding in some rich countries. Soon hundreds of millions of vaccine doses will be delivered to Africa through donations of excess doses by wealthy nations or purchases by the African Union.
Africa is aiming to vaccinate 60% of the continent's population by the end of 2022, a steep target given the global demand for doses. The African Union, representing the continent's 54 countries, has ordered 400 million Johnson & Johnson doses, but the distribution of those doses will be spread out over 12 months because there simply isn't enough supply.
COVAX, the U.N.-backed program which aims to get vaccines to the neediest people in the world, said this week that its efforts continue "to be hampered by export bans, the prioritization of bilateral deals by manufacturers and countries, ongoing challenges in scaling up production by some key producers, and delays in filing for regulatory approval.”
Uganda, a country of more than 44 million people, has recorded more than 120,000 cases of COVID-19, including just over 3,000 deaths, according to official figures. The country has given 1.65 million shots, but only about 400,000 people have received two doses, according to Wayengera. Uganda's target is to fully vaccinate up to 5 million of the most vulnerable, including nurses and teachers, as soon as possible.
At the Red Cross tent in downtown Kampala, demand for the jabs was high. By late afternoon only 30 of 150 doses remained, and some who arrived later were told to come back the next day.
“I came here on a sure deal, but it hasn't happened,” said trader Sulaiman Mivule after a nurse told him he was too late for a shot that day. “I will come back tomorrow. It's easy for me here because I work in this area.”
Asked why he was so eager to get his first shot, he said, “They are telling us that there could be a third wave. If it comes when we are very vaccinated, maybe it will not hurt us so much. Prevention is better than cure."
Mivule and others who spoke to the AP said they didn't want to go to vaccination sites at hospitals because of they expected to find crowds there.
Bernard Ssembatya said he had been driving by when he spotted the Red Cross's white tent and went in for a jab on the spur of the moment. Afterward, he texted his friends about the opportunity.
“I was getting demoralized by going to health centers,” he said. “You see a lot of people there and you don't even want to try to enter.”
Yet, despite enthusiasm among many, some still walked away without getting a shot when they were told their preferred vaccine was not yet available.
The one-shot J&J vaccine, still unavailable in Uganda, is frequently asked for, said Jacinta Twinomujuni, a nurse with the Kampala Capital City Authority who monitored the scene.
“I tell them, of course, that we don’t have it,” she said. “And they say, ‘Okay, let’s wait for it.’”