African countries urged not to waste vaccines after expiry confusion

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The African Union’s disease control body and World Health Organisation on Thursday urged African countries not to waste COVID-19 vaccines donated to them, after confusion in Malawi and South Sudan about whether doses they received had expired.

“My appeal to member states is: if we are doing our part to mobilise these vaccines, you do your part and use the vaccines,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), told a news conference.

Malawi has said it plans to destroy more than 16 000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India because the shots were not administered before the April 13 expiry date on the packaging. The doses were supplied via the AU thanks to a donation from telecoms group MTN.

South Sudan has set aside 59 000 doses supplied by the AU and is not using them because of the same expiry issue, a government official told Reuters last week.

But Nkengasong, the continent’s top public health official, said the Africa CDC had informed countries receiving the donations that the shots could be used until July 13, based on a further analysis conducted by the Serum Institute.

Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Africa director, told a separate briefing that the shots made by the Serum Institute should be stored until more information was available.

“My understanding is that the expiry date could be several months longer than had initially been envisaged. But we will look for the definitive information,” she said.

Discussion on investigation into use of AstraZeneca vaccine:

A spokesman for Malawi’s Health Ministry said on Thursday that he was not aware of Nkengasong’s comments but that the decision to incinerate the AstraZeneca doses was in line with government guidelines on expired pharmaceutical products.

He added that more than 80% of the 102 000 doses donated via the AU had been used before April 13.

Peter Aguek Akon, director-general of South Sudan’s Drugs and Food Control Authority, said it was up to the Health Ministry to inform the regulator if the vaccine’s expiry date had been extended.

“If they get the letter of extension, then they should bring the letter to us as a regulator to review if it will be acceptable,” he told Reuters.

African countries have struggled to secure enough COVID-19 vaccines to roll out mass immunisation campaigns. Many are reliant on donations from global vaccine scheme COVAX, which is co-led by the WHO and partners including the Gavi vaccines alliance.

Nkengasong said 15 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in Africa, out of a population of 1.3 billion. The Africa CDC has set a target of vaccinating 60% of the continent’s population, or 750 million people.