The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will return 1.3 million unused doses of the Chinese coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca to the U.N., it announced this week, after the country’s government failed to finalize a distribution plan for the vaccines.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) donated over 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to DRC in early March through COVAX, a World Health Organization (W.H.O.) initiative to provide free Chinese coronavirus vaccines to poorer nations.
“A plan for the deployment of the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] vaccines across the country is being finalized,” UNICEF reported hours after its COVAX shipment arrived in DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, on March 5.
DRC’s government never produced a plan to distribute the vaccines, however, forcing DRC health officials to decide this week that the country will return its unused AstraZeneca vaccines to the U.N.
“The DRC has not issued a vaccination plan to support a campaign of this scale and has an insufficient number of vaccination sites, which will hinder access to this vaccine,” Susie Villeneuve, UNICEF regional advisor for Health Systems Strengthening in West and Central Africa, said during a video conference in Ghana’s capital, Accra, on April 27.
“The decision was made to ensure usage of the vaccines before the expiry date on June 24 [sic],” Villeneuve added.
The regional health advisor suggested the U.N. could redistribute DRC’s unused vaccines to other African countries.
“Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Madagascar, and the Comoros are among the possible recipients of the Congolese lot,” she said.
“In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, vaccination operations against Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] have been slowing down since the official launch of the campaign on April 19. In one week, only 1,700 people had received the first dose, the Ministry of Health said,” Kenya’s East African reported on April 29.
“AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in the DRC two months ago, but fear of side effects had delayed their launch,” the newspaper noted.
The DRC documented nearly 30,000 cases of Chinese coronavirus and 763 deaths directly attributable to the infection. Experts warned the official government numbers may be significantly lower than the actual case totals in the country due to Congo’s weak public health system, ongoing sectarian violence, and minimal ability to reach all sectors of society.
The Swedish-British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca developed its coronavirus vaccine jointly with Oxford University, while the Serum Institute of India currently manufactures much of the currently existing stock of the shot.
“The AstraZeneca vaccine … makes up the majority of doses supplied under the Covax scheme,” according to the BBC.
At least 18 countries around the world recently paused their distribution of AstraZeneca’s vaccine – Denmark stopped its use completely – after the European Medicines Agency, the E.U.’s health regulator, and British health regulators confirmed possible links between the vaccine and blood clots developed by its recipients in early March.
South Africa purchased 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine directly from the Serum Institute of India in January. The country’s government on March 21 announced it was selling at least 1 million of its 1.5 million AstraZeneca doses after “a small trial suggesting the shot offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness caused by the … [Chinese coronavirus] variant dominant in the country, put the brakes on the country’s mass inoculation program,” Radio France Internationale reported at the time.
“Some African nations got AstraZeneca vaccines donated via an arrangement between the South African-based MTN mobile communications company and the African Union” following South Africa’s decision to sell its vaccine load, according to the BBC.
“But several other [African] countries who were given … AstraZeneca doses did not manage to use them before they expired on 13 April,” the British broadcaster noted. “Malawi has been left with about 16,000 … doses out of 102,000, while South Sudan was left with 59,000 doses of the vaccine. Ghana and Sierra Leone were also left with some doses.”
“The WHO has now advised those countries to store the vaccines pending further guidance, rather than dispose of them,” the BBC reported on April 23.