African Union secures first batch of COVID-19 vaccines

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The African Union’s newly acquired 270 million COVID-19 vaccines are strictly for purchase by African nations. Photo by: Raphael Satter / Reuters

The African Union’s vaccine acquisition task force has secured 270 million COVID-19 vaccines for African nations, marking the first batch obtained for continentwide vaccination efforts. The vaccines will be supplied by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, as well as AstraZeneca, through an independent license with the Serum Institute of India.

“That’s a significant achievement — and good news to start the year with,” said John Nkengasong, director at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, during a press conference.

This batch is strictly for purchase by African nations. Purchases will be made through the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, and the African Export-Import Bank will help countries secure financing by providing advance commitment guarantees of up to $2 billion to manufacturers. Once vaccines are delivered, countries can either pay for them using domestic resources or can use a five-year installment payment plan through the bank.

“Getting the vaccine doses is a very important step. Getting the vaccine into people’s arms is equally important.”

— Matshidiso Moeti, Africa regional director, World Health Organization

Qualifying African nations are also slated to receive donated vaccines through the COVAX Facility, a global initiative working to provide vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries. This year, the facility is expected to provide 600 million doses of vaccines for about 20% of populations in African countries.

However, this falls short of the African Union's target of vaccinating at least 60% of the continent’s population, which is the level needed to reach herd immunity — a threshold aimed at helping to normalize lives for people across Africa. The newly acquired 270 million vaccine doses will help reduce this gap and increase the expected number of vaccine doses currently available to African nations through the AU and COVAX to 870 million this year.

Some countries have also engaged in bilateral negotiations to procure vaccines independently. Egypt, Morocco, and the Seychelles have procured the Sinopharm vaccine from China, while Guinea procured Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, Nkengasong said.

The first doses of vaccines from the COVAX Facility are expected to arrive in March, with a larger rollout expected in June, said Matshidiso Moeti, Africa regional director at the World Health Organization, during a press conference.

Initially, at least 50 million doses of the vaccines available for purchase will be available between April and June.

“That period is crucial because that’s really when there is a bottleneck for access to vaccines,” Nkengasong said.

Widespread COVID-19 vaccination in Africa will likely start mid-2021

Unique challenges mean widespread campaigns to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in Africa will likely start in the second quarter of 2021, says John Nkengasong, Africa CDC director.

But acquiring the vaccines is only the first step, Moeti emphasized, adding that countries need to push harder in the coming months to prepare for a rollout of vaccines, including putting the regulatory approvals in place, as well as identifying priority groups to vaccinate and methods to reach these people.

“Getting the vaccine doses is a very important step. Getting the vaccine into people’s arms is equally important,” Moeti said.

Globally, vaccine access has not been equitable. The majority of countries that have begun their rollout are high-income, according to WHO.

While Moeti said that WHO hopes the allocation process for African countries will be equitable, she added that it also makes little sense to provide countries with vaccines if they are not ready to distribute them.

“What we want to avoid … is vaccines sitting unutilized while countries are getting ready,” she said.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.