Vaccine nationalism has been taken to new heights as COVID-19 jabs produced in Africa are being exported to countries in Europe, even though Africa has not received the doses promised to the continent. 

According to the New York Times, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines, which are being filled and finished in South Africa, are being exported by the millions to Europe while the country producing them has only fully vaccinated less than 7% of its population.

The production deal that South Africa signed to assemble the doses assured them 31 million J&J doses, but the country has only administered two million of the jabs

And it's not only South Africa that has been cut short. Vaccine production in Africa was a beacon of hope for the continent as doses were certain to be delivered to South Africa’s neighbouring countries faster than having to wait for imports from Europe, India or the US. The J&J clinical trials even took place in South Africa, adding to the hope that the continent would be able to painlessly access doses. 

Despite this, Africa has not been prioritised in global vaccine rollout plans, even if the doses are being packaged on home soil. Europe has administered the most vaccine doses than any other continent in the world, leading with 93 doses per 100 people. In contrast — and due to vaccine nationalism — it’s sadly no surprise that Africa has administered the least out of all the continents, with just six doses per 100 people. 

According to the World Health Organisation’s vaccine equity dashboard, vaccine nationalism — where wealthy countries hoarded more than enough vaccines for the people before they were even produced, leaving poor countries scrambling for doses — is costing poor countries a lot of money. In order to cover the cost of vaccinating at least 70% of their population, low-income countries will have to increase their healthcare spending by 56.6%. In contrast, high-income countries have only had to increase spending by 0.8%.

South African scientist, Glenda Gray, who helped lead J&J trials in South Africa, told the New York Times that pharmaceutical companies needed to prioritize delivering vaccines to lower-income nations that form part of their production chain. “It’s like a country is making food for the world and sees its food being shipped off to high-resource settings while its citizens starve,” she said.

Human rights lawyer and vaccine equity advocate, Fatima Hassan also had a say on the J&J exports telling the New York Times: “It is harming our efforts to get speedy supplies into the system.” 

She also took to Twitter to further comment on the situation, calling it “grotesque” and further stressing the need for vaccine equity and transparency in vaccine deals. 

“This is why the vaccine contracts must be disclosed now,” she said. “It is in the public interest to know what other rights have been waived, for whose benefit, and why we are being drip fed… Clearly, we need multiple licensees and no exports to the EU, or any rich nation, meanwhile exports continue to October,” she added. 

The reason for the export of vaccines to western countries is because of South Africa’s deal with J&J, according to a confidential contract that the New York Times has seen. In order to secure vaccines for the country, South Africa had to waive its right to impose export restrictions on doses. This trade was not ideal, however according to spokesperson for the South African Health ministry, Popo Maja, who said that without it, South Africa would not have access to J&J doses at all. 

“The government was not given any choice,” Maja said in a statement. “Sign contract or no vaccine.”

According to the New York Times, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Paul Stoffels said that the pharmaceutical company has done its best to prioritize South Africa, and there are plans for the plant in the country to exclusively supply doses to African countries later this year. 

Plans to produce more vaccines on the continent, including Pfizer’s establishment of a “fill to finish” plant in South Africa and investments into a mRNA vaccine hub in the country are also underway. However the fruits of these plans will not be seen this year, and the mRNA vaccine hub will only go ahead if big pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Pfizer are willing to share their mRNA technology with the hub. 

Africa is currently facing a deadly third wave of COVID-19 infections and is grappling with hold of the Delta Variant. Despite this, the continent has vaccinated only 2% of its population. It awaits the majority of the 400 million promised J&J doses to be supplied through the African Union, and is only expected to reach herd immunity (set at inoculating 67% of the continent) as late as 2023. 


Defeat Poverty

Africa-Produced COVID-19 Vaccines Being Shipped to Europe Despite Urgent Need on the Continent

By Khanyi Mlaba