By: Sarah Jerving

The African Union will ship 6 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson one-dose COVID-19 vaccine next week. This is the first shipment of doses available to countries for purchase through the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust.

Following the breakdown in vaccine supplies from COVAX in March, many African countries have been eagerly awaiting these shipments as 29 countries currently struggling with a severe third wave of the pandemic — stretching the capacity of many hospitals and causing oxygen and bed shortages in intensive care units.

The AU is aiming to vaccinate 60% of the continent’s population to reach herd immunity. After it became clear the international community, through COVAX, would only provide vaccines to meet a portion of this goal, the AU signed a deal with J&J in March for 400 million doses, to be provided over 18 months.

Next week, the 27 countries that have already paid for doses will begin to receive them, said Strive Masiyiwa, special envoy to the African Union, during a press conference Thursday. Another 18 countries are in the process of finalizing loans from the World Bank. Masiyiwa said that by the end of August he expects 45 countries will receive their first shipments.

These shipments will be manufactured by the South African company Aspen Pharmacare. Masiyiwa said the AU decided to make the deal with J&J because they were the only major supplier of vaccines, at the time of the agreement, which had signed a deal to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines on the African continent.

“When we got into trouble this time, it was because there was no production from the African continent. We won’t solve this permanently through donations. We have to have a sustainable approach to production.”

— Strive Masiyiwa, special envoy to the African Union

The AU provided J&J payment upfront to secure the doses through a $2 billion facility approved by the African Export-Import Bank and countries have secured doses through the Africa Medical Supplies Platform. African countries have ordered and placed pre-orders in excess of the 400 million doses outlined in the agreement, Masiyiwa said.

This initial shipment is for the period of July and August. The AU expects to ship 10 million doses a month, starting in September, ramping up to 20 million doses per month in January. UNICEF is the distribution partner for shipping these doses.

This news comes as shipments of donated vaccines from the United States also started arriving on the continent over the past week. The U.S. has delivered about one million J&J doses to Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gambia, and Senegal in recent days, with another 1.2 million doses set for delivery this week to Cameroon, Lesotho, Niger, Zambia, and Central African Republic, said Jessye Lapenn, U.S. ambassador to the African Union.

These are the first tranche of shipments of approximately 25 million vaccine doses the U.S. committed to donating to African nations.

Of these doses, about 15 million are vaccines that require two doses and the other 10 million are single doses, Masiyiwa said.

Separately, U.S. President Joe Biden announced last month that his government will donate 500 million Pfizer doses to low- and lower-middle-income countries, but it’s unclear what percentage of those doses will be allocated to the African continent. And these doses aren’t all expected to arrive this year, Masiyiwa said.

The news also comes a day after Pfizer and BioNTech signed an agreement for South African company The Biovac Institute to manufacture their COVID-19 vaccine. It’s the first deal the companies have signed to have the vaccine produced on the African continent and the first time an African company will produce a messenger RNA-based vaccine.

It’s an agreement for the company to be involved in the “fill and finish” stage of manufacturing, in which it will receive the substance of the vaccine from abroad and then package and ship the dose — the same type of deal Aspen Pharmacare has with J&J.

The AU is pushing for more of these arrangements rather than donations.

“When we got into trouble this time, it was because there was no production from the African continent,” Masiyiwa said. “We won’t solve this permanently through donations. We have to have a sustainable approach to production.”

Export restrictions announced in India in March meant that many African countries were left without second doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to provide to their citizens through COVAX.

The African continent has received 82.7 million vaccine doses of which countries have administered 61.3 million doses, according to Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. With this, only about 1.5% of the population on the continent is fully vaccinated.

But even with these new shipments of vaccine doses, Masiyiwa said there is no possible way countries will vaccinate the estimated 780 million people needed to reach herd immunity. Looking at available doses to the African Union, he said, the “best hope” is that this can be achieved by August or September of 2022.

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