Details have emerged of continued frustration by vaccine manufacturers in sending Covid-19 vaccines to Africa, a crisis that has given the African Union the impetus to become autonomous by having vaccines manufactured on the continent.
Even though the continent will only be involved in the last steps in the manufacturing process of the vaccines known as “fill and finish”, African Union Special Envoy for African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), Strive Masiyiwa, said this would be a step towards ending the vaccine apartheid that has rocked the globe pitting industrialised nations against poor ones like Africa.
AVAT too has now been institutionalised and made permanent by the AU with a mandate to purchase vaccines now and in future. It will henceforth be called the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Trust (and no longer merely a task force), as it moves away from solely relying on the Covax supplies.
This as further details emerged on Thursday of the unwavering push and shove that Africa has been engaged in behind closed doors to get a hold of enough vaccines to vaccinate its citizens amidst frosty supply pledges from donors that left the continent stranded and in a vaccine access crisis from abroad.
Mr Masiyiwa who was speaking at the weekly Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) press briefing Thursday said it was clear as early as January that vaccine nationalism was being played out over production assets.
“Countries with the production assets have held control over the release of vaccines. And we could only rely on one production asset on African soil which was (South Africa’s) Aspen Pharmacare Holdings facility, which was at hand to deliver 300 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson doses,” he said.
Doubts have now been cast over the African Union’s leadership continent-wide vaccination coverage of 60 per cent (780 million people out of the 1.3 billion African population) vaccination by 2022.
Apprised of these drawbacks in August, the AU leadership set up the AVAT Task Force whose mission was to engage the donor community including the White House.
The AU decided in November after fruitless engagements with donors that Covax could only do 20 per cent which would be a third of the continental target.
Then African leaders decided it was time to buy vaccines themselves not because they wanted to compete with Covax but because they were told Covax could not achieve the target as donors just weren’t willing to provide the funding for the continent to get to 60 per cent.
Still, the African leaders met with President Macron, representing the donors in November and December and pleaded with him to engage the other countries to meet them at least halfway to push their commitments, to at least 30 per cent of the population, which would be half of the continental target. President Macron confirmed that they would indeed get to 30 per cent as a minimum.
“We engaged all the suppliers authorised by the WHO including Chinese, and Russian suppliers. We met with them all. But the challenge has been the availability of vaccines,” Masiyiwa said.
Although the AU Covax task force had already secured $2 billion by November provided by the African Export-Import Bank-equivalent to what the US has put into Covax, nobody was willing to sell.
“Ten finance ministers of AU members met and increased the capital of the Afreximbank for it to have the capacity to finance direct vaccine acquisitions in one of the most important meetings in modern Africa,” Masiyiwa said.
Having secured the funding AVAT engaged Johnson and Johnson which was the only one willing to produce on the continent, according to the AU Special Envoy on vaccines.
But J&J, like all the suppliers, wanted upfront payment and a bank guarantee, which the AU could provide to the level of $2 billion.
Africa’s order with J&J is made up of two parts; a 400 million dose order to be delivered by September, next year, starting next week. When J&J has completed the delivery of the shipments, it will have achieved 50 per cent of the set target of 60 per cent with the hope that the donor community led by the US will meet the AU halfway with their donations by supplying the other 30 per cent.
To achieve the 60 per cent vaccination target of Africa’s population the AU would need 800 million single dose vaccines of which there is only, currently one supplier, who does single dose, which is J&J and 1.6 billion for the double dose regime.
Pfizer has come around and said it would produce 100 million doses of the vaccines annually at Biovac Company also based in South Africa.
The US said on Thursday that 21 million doses of vaccines including J&J, Moderna and Pfizer are being shipped out of the US as donations to 49 countries.