US President Joe Biden is to nominate outgoing Africa CDC director Dr John Nkengasong as the coordinator of US government activities to combat HIV/AIDS globally.
The Cameroonian virologist, who will hold a position in the Department of State and serve as an ambassador-at-large, has received global plaudits for his assured handling of the Covid-19 pandemic at Africa CDC, the African Union’s public health agency.
Nkengasong has assumed a high-profile public role at the Addis Ababa-based agency, strongly and repeatedly pushing for more vaccinations, tests, and life-saving equipment for Africa since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The global significance of his role was recognised in September when he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021.
Nkengasong was also recognised by our sister publication New African magazine as one of its 100 most influential Africans in 2020.
He has also served as one of the World Health Organisation director general’s special envoys for Covid-19 since 2020.
In his new role he will lead, manage, and oversee the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), becoming the first person of African origin to hold the position.
Nkengasong has years of prior experience in US public health agencies. Before becoming Africa CDC’s first director, he served as acting deputy director at the Center for Global Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before that he was chief of the international laboratory branch in the division of Global HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis at the CDC.
Leading the fight to obtain vaccines for Africa
In an interview with African Business last year, Nkengasong revealed his fear that the pandemic was putting global solidarity under unprecedented pressure, with richer countries monopolising Covid-19 tests and, subsequently, vaccines.
“We’ve learned that when the world is challenged with access to limited commodities then global solidarity collapses,” he said.
Nkengasong has refused to shy away from controversial topics. In recent weeks, Nkengasong has urged richer nations to forego vaccine boosters and deliver supplies to developing countries, and expressed his dismay at the UK’s policy of not accepting certain vaccine certificates from the continent.
He told a news briefing it was “a message that creates confusion within our population… creating more reticence, reluctance for people to receive vaccines”.
Despite Nkengasong’s strenuous lobbying efforts on behalf of Africans, less than 5% of the continent’s people have been fully vaccinated. Covid-19 vaccine shipments to Africa must rise by over seven times from around 20m per month to 150m each month on average if the continent is to fully vaccinate 70% of its people by September 2022, according to the World Health Organisation.
Africa CDC has yet to name Nkengasong’s replacement.