The Democratic Republic of Congo is returning 1.3 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to the COVAX Facility and UNICEF after determining it can’t administer them before they expire in June.
The country received 1.7 million doses through COVAX in early March. But the government decided to pause its rollout after the suspension of the vaccine’s use by several European countries due to concerns over blood clots. After the European Medicines Agency concluded that the vaccine’s overall benefit outweighs the rare risks associated, DRC launched its vaccination campaign on April 19, but has only administered about 1,000 doses.
Now the country says it can’t roll out all of the remaining doses on time. Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, said strong levels of vaccine hesitancy and gaps in the DRC health system that limit the country’s capacity to roll out vaccines quickly, may have led to the decision.
Studies conducted by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention several months ago, found that only 59% of respondents in DRC were willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, whereas that number was 94% in Ethiopia.
But Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, emphasized that African countries don’t currently have the “luxury” of choosing which vaccine to roll out, as opposed to other parts of the world, and urged populations to accept the vaccines available.
“We do not have choices,” he said at a press conference on Thursday. “We have predominantly the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
Agreements to redistribute these vaccines from DRC are being finalized with the Central African Republic, Ghana, Senegal, and Togo, with shipments planned in the coming weeks, Moeti said.
The Serum Institute of India has indicated that the shelf life of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines could be extended from six to nine months, but WHO is waiting for more data on this before it can issue guidance, she said.
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“We think it was extremely wise of the government to make this estimation and it was very generous of them to offer to share these vaccine doses with other countries,” Moeti said. “It’s imperative that the available doses are used as quickly as possible to protect people from severe disease and death due to COVID-19.”