Delays in Covid-19 vaccine shipments to Africa are expected to continue this month after India temporarily banned exports of the shots as it grapples with a severe second wave of infections.
Most African countries are largely dependent on Covax, a global initiative meant to provide equitable access to vaccines that’s backed by the World Health Organisation. Covax is reliant on AstraZeneca Plc’s Covid-19 shot and leans on the Serum Institute of India Ltd. to manufacture its allotments.
The limited stocks and supply bottlenecks have put vaccines “out of reach of many people in Africa,” with many countries in the region barely having started to inoculate their citizens, WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said in a briefing Thursday.
Less than 2% of the 690 million doses administered globally have been in Africa, where most countries received vaccines only five weeks ago and in small quantities, she said.
“The situation with the Serum Institute and the government of India makes it very complicated for our vaccination program across the continent,” Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Director John Nkengasong said in a separate online briefing.
While Johnson & Johnson last week agreed to supply as many as 400 million doses through a task team established by the African Union by the end of next year, the interruption in Covax shipments is particularly tricky for southern African nations because the weather is getting cooler, increasing the risk of surges in coronavirus cases.
“The greatest challenge we have now is how do we bridge the time from mid-April to June or the beginning of July,” Nkengasong said. “If the shipment of vaccines from Covax was not interrupted from the situation in India, we would have had a nice coverage between now to June, when our own coverage would have kicked in.”
Adding to the issues are growing worries that the AstraZeneca vaccine causes rare blood clots. While this possible development is being carefully monitored, the WHO believes “the benefits greatly outweigh the risks,” and that countries in Africa should continue to vaccinate people with the AstraZeneca vaccine, Moeti said.
Covax, which is also working with vaccine makers Novavax Inc. and Moderna Inc., still expects to deliver at least 2 billion doses of vaccines in 2021. In addition, the AU’s African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team has shifted its focus to procuring J&J shots to enable the Serum Institute to supply inoculations to the Covax mechanism, Nkengasong said.
“That close co-ordination and partnership with Covax is very important for us,” he said. “We didn’t drop the deal, it was just a clear understanding of how not to duplicate efforts with the Serum Institute so that we complement each other.”
Still, countries affected by the delays have received WHO guidance “to optimize the national deployment of their available doses,” Moeti said.
While the reports of clotting after use of the AstraZeneca vaccine have proved causality and are “very rare,” the WHO is also trying to educate people as to the early symptoms. That’s so they can take precautions and go to a health facility “that is capable picking this up and treating those people” she said. “Our main interest is to make sure people don’t lose their lives due to this vaccination.”