Patchy deliveries, limited access disrupt jab drive across Africa

Africa CDC says countries’ COVID-19 inoculation plans are in disarray as vaccine deliveries are scarce and unreliable.

Workers offload boxes of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines in Accra, Ghana [File: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters]

Many people in African countries who have received their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine do not know when they will get the second one due to delivery delays, according to the continent’s top public health official.

“We cannot predict when the second doses will come and that is not good for our vaccination programme,” John Nkengasong, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), told reporters on Thursday.

Africa lags behind most other regions in COVID-19 vaccinations, with just under 14 million doses of mostly AstraZeneca vaccines having been administered on the continent of 1.3 billion.

Most of the reported side effects have been slight to moderate, the WHO’s African Region said in a statement, adding that no cases of blood clotting problems have been reported, touching on a particular concern about AstraZeneca vaccines.

COVAX facility

So far, the majority of the vaccines available in African countries have been delivered via COVAX, a World Health Organization-backed (WHO) scheme designed to boost the distribution of vaccines to low-income nations.

COVAX aims to deliver 600 million shots to about 40 African countries this year, enough to vaccinate 20 percent of their populations.

The majority of those doses are AstraZeneca shots produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII). But last month, India suspended its exports to meet rising domestic demand following a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Nkengasong had warned at the time that India’s move would undermine the continent’s inoculation plans and could have a “catastrophic” impact if extended.

“We are in a bind as a continent,” he said on Thursday. “Access to vaccines has been limited for us.”

Nkengasong highlighted the case of Ghana, which has administered about 742,000 doses of the 815,000 shots it has so far received and will run out by the end of next week.

“Even if Ghana had the money, they will not know where to go get the vaccine. That’s the challenge,” he added, expressing hope that India, where new infections have topped 200,000 a day, will lift its restriction as soon as possible.

The African Union signed a deal last month with Johnson & Johnson for the single-shot vaccine it has developed. But those doses will not begin arriving until the third quarter, and Nkengasong said last week that bridging the gap would be difficult.

Speaking about the delays in shipments of more doses via COVAX from India, Richard Mihigo, immunisation programme coordinator for the WHO in Africa, said COVAX was working to ensure that countries that received their first installment of vaccines in early March would also soon receive their second batch.

People who have received their first jab are already benefiting from some protection from the virus, the Africa CDC’s Nkengasong said, and he urged nations to use their doses before they expire.

On Tuesday, a South Sudanese government official told Reuters news agency that South Sudan would not use the 59,000 vaccines it had received last month as a donation from the MTN Group, a South African mobile operator. The vaccines expired on April 13, the official said.

And on Wednesday, a health official in Malawi said it would destroy more than 16,000 vaccines it had received via the same donation scheme because they had expired, the AFP news agency reported.

Nkengasong said that SII, manufacturer of the AstraZeneca doses in question, had told the Africa CDC that the expiry date could be extended to June or July.

But he said the disease control body had urged African governments to use the relatively small number of doses as quickly as possible. He told reporters he had not heard of Malawi’s decision.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies