Vials of AstraZeneca's Covishield vaccine for COVID-19 are seen at a filling lab at the Serum Institute of India, Pune, India, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.
Vials of AstraZeneca’s Covishield vaccine for COVID-19 are seen at a filling lab at the Serum Institute of India, Pune, India, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Rafiq Maqbool/AP

The African Union has announced it is dropping plans to buy additional doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine directly from the Serum Institute of India and will instead focus on securing further vaccines from Johnson & Johnson. 

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC), said the decision was not related to recent safety concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine but “because we work very closely with COVAX,” the vaccine-sharing facility for the world’s poorest countries.

Addressing a virtual news briefing from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia Thursday, Nkengasong explained the pivot to Johnson & Johnson was to ensure, the “Indian Serum Institute was enabled to be able to supply doses to the COVAX mechanism.”  

“It was just a clear understanding of how not to duplicate efforts with the Serum Institute, so that we complement each other rather than duplicate efforts,” he added.

Last week, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) signed an Advance Purchase Agreement with Johnson & Johnson for 220 million doses on behalf of the 55 member states of the African Union (AU).

Nkengasong said he hoped the vaccines would “begin to be available at the beginning of the third quarter.”

The AU will now explore options of securing an additional 180 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he said.

“Given that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is a single dose, that means we have the ability – if those vaccines are picked up by countries – to immunize 400 million people on the continent,” he said. 

The AU’s decision comes a day after EU regulator European Medicines Agency (EMA) found that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and “very rare cases of blood clots.”

However Nkengasong said, “this (AstraZeneca) vaccine continues to be safe. We will still recommend that the vaccines be used.” He also reiterated the findings of the EMA saying, “the recommendation still stands that the benefits of receiving the vaccine outweighs the risk of the unusual and rare side effects of the vaccine.”

Nkengasong confirmed that “a total 33.8 million vaccine doses have been acquired by Member States, with approximately 12.9 million doses administered” so far.  

He welcomed the news that “Seychelles and Mauritius have received enough COVID vaccine doses to reach 20% target vaccination benchmark, which was what the COVAX facility promised.”

“I think every little step and progress that we observe in the continent is good progress” and “it’s always good to highlight those success stories,” he added.

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