At the beginning of December, Nigeria had to dispose of close to one million COVID-19 vaccines that it received, despite the fact that just about 3% of its population is fully vaccinated.
Africa’s most populous country is not alone in having to discard vaccines, with a number of African nations having had to throw away jabs, even though the continent has fully inoculated just 7.5% of its 1.3 billion population.
The issue? Vaccines have been donated to Africa without the consideration of Africans themselves. There have been increasing cases of donations with carelessly short shelf lives, as well as last-minute donations that have left countries with little time to prepare for their vaccine campaigns.
Speaking to the BBC, Nigeria’s Health Minister Osagie Ehanire explained the decision to discard vaccines that were donated as they were nearing their expiry dates.
"That left us very short time, some just weeks, to use them, after deduction of time to transport, clear, distribute, and deliver to users," said Ehanire.
In fact, in July this year the World Health Organization reported that 450,000 donated doses across eight African countries had expired before they could be administered.
Over the course of this year Malawi has had to burn 20,000 doses, South Sudan discarded close to 60,000 doses, and the Democratic Republic of Congo had to return 1.3 million jabs to COVAX, all as a result of poorly thought out donations.
After Malawi opted to destroy its vaccines, President Lazarus Chakwera told CNN why the country refused to use expired doses, as then advised by the WHO.
“We don’t want people thinking that we are settling just for anything that comes our way, even if it is expired. People shouldn’t be thinking that we are a dumping ground,” he said.
Africa has been calling for fair access to COVID-19 vaccines since the end of 2020, when it became clear that vaccine nationalism was seeing wealthier countries hoarding more than enough vaccine doses to protect their populations, several times over in some cases. While donations to the continent have been slow over the year, as 2021 wraps up, several countries have begun releasing more doses to be administered across Africa.
Yet, according to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, these doses are too often too close to their expiry dates to be useful; with the UK and Canada among those countries that have donated soon-to-expire doses in recent weeks.
As a result of these piecemeal, unplanned donations, the WHO, Africa CDC, and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) released a joint statement in November calling to attention these donation issues, and setting out what donating countries need to do in order for their donations to be valuable to the continent.
“Countries need predictable and reliable supply,” the statement said. “Having to plan at short notice and ensure uptake of doses with short shelf lives exponentially magnifies the logistical burden on health systems that are already stretched.”
The statement continued: “Donations to COVAX, AVAT, and African countries must be made in a way that allows countries to effectively mobilise domestic resources in support of rollout and enables long-term planning to increase coverage rates.”
The statement also laid out that donated doses moving forward should have a minimum shelf life of two-and-a-half months, and that recipient countries need a four-week notice period at minimum before vaccines are set to arrive at their doorstep. The agencies also requested that necessary vaccine supplies such as syringes, cotton wool, and masks be donated with the doses, this in response to a lack of these across the continent that has threatened vaccine rollouts before.
Africa continues to face a vaccine shortage as it watches countries abroad administer booster shots in defense against the Omicron variant, this despite over a billion citizens on home soil waiting to receive their first dose. What’s more is that countries that have hoarded vaccines, will continue to have enough doses to share with nations in need and to meet donation targets, even if they administer boosters to their own populations.
This means that despite the new variant and the sudden rush to administer boosters, wealthy nations still have the capacity to prioritise vaccine donations, and so long as they do, they should also have the capacity to make sure that their donations are well-received and within enough time for African nations to plan their vaccine rollouts.