NAIROBI (Reuters) – The African Union’s disease control body said on Thursday it abandoned plans to secure AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines to its members at the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine supplier, amid scarcity global vaccines.
The $ 3 injection from AstraZeneca is by far the cheapest coronavirus vaccine launched to date and the easiest to store and transport, making it suitable for developing countries.
On Wednesday, European and British medical regulators said they had found possible links between the vaccine and extremely rare cases of blood clots in the brain, while emphatically reaffirming its importance in mass vaccination against COVID-19.
John Nkengasong, head of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa’s CDC), said the AU decision had nothing to do with these findings and reiterated his advice that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks.
He said the main reason was to avoid duplicating COVAX’s efforts by installing COVAX supported by the World Health Organization, which will continue to supply AstraZeneca to Africa.
He said the AU is focusing on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, citing an agreement announced last week to supply Africa with up to 400 million doses.
COVAX plans to distribute 600 million injections – most of them from AstraZeneca – to about 40 African countries this year, enough to vaccinate 20% of its populations.
Africa is behind most other regions in the COVID-19 vaccinations; less than 13 million doses have been administered on a continent of 1.3 billion people, according to the Africa CDC.
The AU wanted to guarantee up to 500 million additional shots from AstraZeneca for its 55 member states, at $ 3 per shot.
However, last month, India suspended its exports to meet growing domestic demand.
Nkengasong said subsequent delays are complicating vaccination across Africa, noting that health systems should know that second doses will be available in time for those who received the first dose.
Matshidiso Moeti, who heads the WHO office in Africa, confirmed that the two organizations wanted to ensure that “they were not competing and running over each other in search of the same vaccines”.
“I am very sure that it is not about doubts about safety and other considerations about AstraZeneca vaccines. It is simply recognizing that there are challenges with the volumes available,” she said at a separate press conference.
The single-dose doses of J&J guaranteed last week will not arrive until the third quarter, and Nkengasong said Africa will have a difficult time filling the gap in the meantime.
South Africa canceled applications for the AstraZeneca vaccine after discovering that it provided only minimal protection against mild to moderate infection caused by the country’s highly infectious dominant variant.
Russia and China also offer vaccines, but there are doubts about their cost and availability in large volumes.
The virus is confirmed to have killed 114,000 people across Africa and infected 4.33 million.
(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie and Alison Williams)