The DRC is already facing shortages and huge logistical challenges in getting vaccines out to people in far-flung areas of a country almost the size of western Europe, and there is growing anger over the failures of rich countries to supply enough vaccines to poorer ones.
But epidemiologists warn that vaccine hesitancy of citizens has been overlooked and could take the DRC “back to square one” and further undermine the global fight against Covid.
Prof Pascal Lutumba, of the University of Kinshasa’s department of infectious diseases, said:
If people in Congo remain unvaccinated, the South African variant could meet with the Delta variant and the virus could mutate into a variant that is resistant to some vaccines.
If a Congo variant arrives in a country like the UK, which has high vaccination rates, it could put them back into the same position they were at the beginning of the pandemic. They’d have to get vaccinated again with a new vaccine.
Setting the tone for vaccine scepticism, the DRC’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, admitted last month he had not yet had the vaccine.
The country has received only AstraZeneca vaccines so far, but according to Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, the country’s head of Covid response, new vaccines are expected to arrive this month, which should include different brands – which Muyembe-Tamfum and the president have both said they will take.
Rodin Nzembuni Nduku, a doctor at a hospital in Kinshasa, said:
The president said that he doesn’t trust AstraZeneca, so that makes me doubt it … I would die of anxiety if I took this vaccine, because of how the president described it. I would be worried that I was going to die.
On 2 March, DRC received 1.7m doses from Covax, the global vaccine-sharing scheme, but delayed the rollout until April after several European countries suspended use of AstraZeneca in response to reports of side-effects involving rare blood clots. About 75% of the shots were relocated to other African countries to be used before they expired. Since then the rollout has been sluggish.
Willingness to have a Covid vaccine in the DRC was reported to be the lowest in 15 countries surveyed by the African Union between August and December last year, with 38% of people surveyed in the DRC unwilling to be vaccinated compared with just 4% in Ethiopia.
And more than 70% of healthcare workers in the country said they would not take the vaccine, according to a study published by Vaccines journal in February.
Healthcare workers who spoke to the Guardian in Kinshasa said these mistakes had been repeated with Covid as the government has failed to adequately explain the severity of the virus, allowing disinformation to spread.
“People didn’t believe it,” said a doctor at Kinshasa’s Mama Yemo hospital, Jean-Paul Nsimba.
They resisted, they doubted its existence. They thought it was a disease that killed white people.
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