African Union officials said on Thursday that the body had begun shipping COVID-19 vaccine doses acquired from Johnson & Johnson , but they raised alarm at the pace of total deliveries to a region where only 1.5% of people are fully vaccinated.
The AU’s COVID special envoy Strive Masiyiwa said the start of the J&J shipments marked a step forward for the continent of more than 1.3 billion people, but in a news conference he called Africa’s situation regarding vaccine deliveries a “crisis”.
Africa remains in the grip of a third wave of the pandemic, and in the past four weeks the continent has recorded a 2% increase in cases and a 6% increase in deaths.
Masiyiwa said the global vaccine-sharing facility known as COVAX had told the AU in January that it planned to ship 320 million doses to African states by August.
“We didn’t get them,” he said.
As of Monday, African nations had received a total of 103 million COVID vaccine doses from all sources, John Nkengasong, head of Africa’s disease control body, told the same virtual news conference.
“The WHO (World Health Organisation) yesterday at a meeting informed us that the actual shipments (from COVAX) were less than 13 million” to date, Masiyiwa said.
The global partnership COVAX was intended to get shots in arms of people in poor countries whose governments were unable to afford and negotiate deals for vaccines early on.
It has been plagued by delays including the halt of vaccine shipments from India amid a catastrophic surge of cases there. The United Nations-backed COVAX has said it has also struggled with funding shortages and bureaucratic hurdles in its effort to independently purchase doses.
The WHO said in a separate press conference that vaccine shipments were ramping up as the continent saw a rise in weekly COVID-19 related deaths, which hit a record peak during the week.
A WHO official said that it had been “a tough three months” for vaccine deliveries to Africa. But in July, nearly 12 million doses were delivered via the COVAX facility — more than the doses received in April, May and June combined.
“We’re seeing more positive prospects in terms of vaccine shipments to Africa,” Phionah Atuhebwe, a WHO Africa official, told the news conference.
The pace of inoculations in poor countries, including all of Africa, has exposed vast global inequalities. On Thursday the WHO called for a halt on COVID-19 vaccine boosters, which some higher income countries are considering, until at least the end of September, citing the widening gap between vaccinations in wealthy and poor countries.