The African Union’s (AU) disease control body said on Thursday it has dropped plans to secure AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines for its members from the Serum Institute of India over global shortfalls of the jab.
In January, the AU announced plans to secure up to 500 million additional AstraZeneca shots for its 55 member states but last month India put a temporary hold on all major exports of the shot to meet domestic demand as infections rose.
AstraZeneca has touted its shot as the vaccine for the world because it is the cheapest and easiest to store and transport, making it well suited to the needs of developing countries.
The change came the day after British and European regulators said they had found possible links between the vaccine and rare cases of brain blood clots, while nonetheless still recommending its use.
John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), said the possible link had not caused the AU’s decision and repeated that “the benefits of receiving the vaccine outweighs the risks”.
However, he said the AU had shifted its efforts to securing doses from Johnson & Johnson, citing a deal announced last week to supply the continent with up to 400 million doses of its vaccine beginning in the third quarter.
African countries will still receive their AstraZeneca shots through the global vaccine-sharing facility Covax.
AstraZeneca makes up the vast majority of doses that African nations expect to receive through Covax, which aims to deliver 600 million shots to some 40 African countries this year, enough to vaccinate 20% of their populations.
As of Thursday, nearly 13 million doses had been administered on the continent of 1.3 billion people, according to the Africa CDC.
Nkengasong said on Thursday the subsequent delays in deliveries of AstraZeneca doses are complicating vaccination drives across the continent.
“The ability to predict when doses will be available is critical for planning first and second rounds of doses,” he said.
Matshidiso Moeti, who heads the World Health Organization’s Africa office, told a news briefing, “I am very much assured that the AU decision is not to do with doubts about the safety and other considerations on the AstraZeneca vaccines. It’s simply to recognise that there are challenges with the volumes that are available.”
Russia and China are also offering vaccines, but enthusiasm in Africa has so far been dampened over questions about their higher cost and availability in large volumes.
The virus has killed approximately 114,000 people across Africa and infected 4.33 million.