Through a manufacturing deal, Africa was supposed to finally get up to speed on Covid-19 vaccines. Now, those have been shipped overseas
At the end of July, the first J&J shots produced in South Africa entered arms, highlighting a flurry of moves meant to get Africa access to sorely needed Covid-19 vaccines.
Those jabs were set to be distributed throughout South Africa, and made available to the African Union. But on Monday, The New York Times reported that most of the vaccines produced in the country haven’t made it to locals, as millions of doses have been exported to Europe.
Aspen Pharmacare and J&J agreed to collaborate for the company’s single-shot vaccine, and the US government dumped $200 million into its plant in Gqeberha to expand production. But J&J has been exporting the millions of doses that were bottled and packaged in South Africa to Europe. The Times spoke with executives at J&J and Aspen, and reviewed South African export records. A stipulation in the contract between the two parties required South Africa to waive its right to export restrictions.
The move was important because the continent of Africa has significantly lagged behind in vaccinating its people. Just 2% of Africans are vaccinated, compared with more than 60% of adults in Europe. J&J’s vaccine could be particularly advantageous in Africa because it’s a single shot, which makes it easier for those living in rural places on the continent to become fully inoculated.
The African Union has ordered 400 million doses for its nations, but very few have arrived on the continent. South Africa alone is waiting for the majority of 31 million doses, and says it has doled out just 2 million, good enough for a 7% vaccination rate.
It’s not the first instance in which biotech has left the region behind. The continent has been edged out for shots by richer countries since the early days of the pandemic. And as countries in Europe and Asia struggled with massive spikes in infections, largely due to variants, vaccines set to be shipped to Africa were diverted elsewhere.
Aspen’s Gqeberha plant was originally booked to manufacture 220 million doses of the J&J jab, but in March, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa upped the country’s goal to 400 million. A May press release from Aspen pledged to make its manufacturing capabilities available to the entire country. Aspen CEO Stephen Saad went on CNN, and proclaimed that more than 90% of the continent’s vaccines were imported, and many of those from India.
Records showed that at least 32 million doses have been shipped, including more than 800,000 doses to Spain in June and July, the Times reports.
At the end of July, BioNTech announced that it will establish mRNA manufacturing in Africa, for the use of vaccines production. When there is less of a need for Covid-19 vaccines, the company will use the sites to pivot to malaria vaccines.
In an interview with Endpoints News Monday, COO Sierk Poetting said that typically, countries that produce the vaccines are the countries that have access to them first. And while it is easier to establish the large, global manufacturing sites and export doses, companies must go local to enable regions-in-need to have their own manufacturing operation and break the vicious cycle.
“I think there’s a way forward with the African Union, and the WHO, and the African CDC, for example, they’re all working on setting up a framework so this all works, In that sense, it absolutely makes sense to start with big global production sites,” Poetting said. “I think this local manufacturing source is something we need to pursue ASAP, now, because it will take a little while, and the countries need that.”