BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Malawi has received its first 360,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine. The shipment Friday afternoon was the first tranche of about 1.2 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine allocations for Malawi through the COVAX program.
Government authorities say the arrival marks a milestone for the Malawi's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far infected over 32,000 people and claimed over 1,000 lives in the country. Health experts, however, warn people against complacency.
The vaccine's arrival was received with excitement at Kamuzu International Airport in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe.
Heath Minister Khumbize Kadondo Chiponda told a televised briefing that the arrival of the vaccine signals the beginning of a return to normal life.
"That box [of vaccines] represents restoration. In that box, it gives us hope that one day soon, we will have an opportunity to see smiles in our beautiful faces. You know, in that box, there is hope that indeed soon we are going to shake hands," said Kadondo Chiponda.
Priority groups to receive the first vaccinations include teachers, health care workers, government security officers, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.
Malawi registered its first three cases of COVID-19 last April.
However, infections reached a critical level during a second wave of the pandemic, starting in November, when 30% of those tested each day were positive for COVID-19, leading Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera to declare the pandemic a national disaster.
However, recently the infection rate in Malawi has been slowing down, averaging 8%.
Dr. Charles Mwansambo, Malawi's secretary of health, said the vaccines should not encourage complacency.
"The vaccines are here, yes, but this is one of the tools in our fight against COVID-19. So, the fact that vaccines are here doesn't mean that we should relax. Let's continue washing our hands regularly with soap and water and of course those with sanitizers, you sanitize [and] let's watch that 1-meter distance and avoid crowds," Mwansambo said.
UNICEF is coordinating shipments of COVID-19 vaccines for COVAX, the effort to assure COVID-19 vaccine availability worldwide.
UNICEF country representative in Malawi Rudolf Schwenk said that globally the COVAX facility plans to distribute close to 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines this year.
"Additionally, UNICEF will procure sufficient quantities of syringes and safety boxes this year and ensure that these arrive in countries before the vaccines. Malawi has already received 360,000 syringes and more than 3,600 safety boxes to initiate the vaccination roll out," Schwenk said.
Malawi is expected to begin vaccinations next week, with Chakwera to have the first shot.