South Sudan Returns 72,000 AstraZeneca Doses After Fumbled Vaccination Launch

Vials with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine against the novel coronavirus are pictured at the vaccination center in Nuremberg, southern Germany, on March 18, 2021. - Germany on March 15 halted the use of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine after reported blood clotting incidents in Europe, saying that a closer look was necessary. …
CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images

South Sudan’s Health Ministry on Monday announced it will return 72,000 of the 132,000 doses of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine it received from COVAX, the World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) program for distributing vaccines to impoverished countries.

The announcement was the latest example of “vaccine hesitancy” and other distribution problems sabotaging African vaccination programs, contrary to persistent complaints about First World countries hoarding their supplies.

South Sudan’s Undersecretary for Health Dr. Mayen Machuot explained that his agency does not want to risk the unused vaccines “expiring here in our hands.”

“We are struggling economically and this means it is labor intensive. It is an emergency vaccination, that’s why we have problems of funding the deployment itself. We are actually tightening our belts and that’s why hopefully in the next two weeks, the 60,000 we have will be dispersed all over the country,” Machuot said.

According to the ministry’s Chinese coronavirus task force, parliamentary delays in approving the program, unexpectedly long training time for vaccinators, and public reluctance to get the shots have hindered the vaccination campaign. COVAX has indicated it will accept the returned AstraZeneca doses. 

“One of the major challenges that is raised by citizens are these negative videos on social media. We have assembled those videos whereby some people say this vaccine is not a vaccine, it’s just a genetic material for the virus, it doesn’t protect people,” task force member Dr. Angelo Goup told Voice of America News (VOA).

Sky News reported on Saturday that “vaccine hesitancy” is a major obstacle in “Africa’s poorest nations,” with South Sudan serving as only one example of countries that risk wasting tens of thousands of expensive doses because they might expire before they can be administered.

South Sudan’s initial goal was to vaccinate 40 percent of its population by the end of 2021. Jubilant doctors celebrated the first shipment of AstraZeneca shots, only to grow dejected as tiny handfuls of patients appeared at clinics to receive their injections. A month after the vaccines arrived, barely 7,000 people have been injected, and the first round of doses was due to expire in mid-July.

Doctors are now worried they will have trouble obtaining more doses because half of the allocation from COVAX was returned unused, a fear compounded by the fact that the supply of vaccines produced in India has been cut off due to India’s coronavirus surge.

Sky News noted ruefully that the coronavirus vaccination center in some South Sudanese hospitals was the quietest, least-crowded part of the facilities.

“The problem is people’s attitudes because they are given different information. Some say that once you are vaccinated you will become infertile, others say it gives you other diseases. People are not ready,” said a church minister who could not convince many members of his congregation to get inoculated.

“According to the World Health Organization, dozens of African countries are now dealing with this ‘low rollout’ scenario. In total, 49 nations have received vaccines but only 17 have managed to administer more than 50% of doses allocated through COVAX,” Sky News reported.

The BBC noted on Tuesday that “many thousands of vaccine doses have been destroyed in African countries because they’ve exceeded their expiry dates.”

According to BBC, South Sudan will destroy 59,000 doses it received from the African Union, in addition to the 72,000 it is returning to COVAX. Malawi has already destroyed 20,000 wasted doses of AstraZeneca vaccine. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said it cannot use most of the 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca it was given by COVAX, and they are due to expire on June 24, so the medicine will be shipped to countries like Ghana and Madagascar as quickly as possible. The DRC has used less than 9,000 of the doses it received.

South Africa decided not to use the million doses of AstraZeneca provided by the African Union, so they too were hastily redistributed to other countries with expiration dates looming. The Ivory Coast was given half a million doses but only used 105,000 of them; at the rate vaccination is proceeding there, with some clinics administering barely 20 shots a day, it would take the Ivory Coast over two years to use the 1.7 million doses it requested from COVAX. 

Tanzania’s government is scrambling to convince the public vaccines are safe after late president John Magufuli denounced them as “dangerous” and suggested they were part of a plot by “white people” to eliminate Africans. Magufuli died in March at age 61, supposedly from heart complications.

Kenya received a million doses from COVAX but had only vaccinated about 152,000 people, most of them health care workers, by the end of April. The vaccination program reportedly crashed because so many Kenyan health care workers distrust their government and the medicines it provides.

Nigeria surrendered some of its doses to Togo and Ghana after originally being so enthusiastic for vaccination that it ordered state and federal authorities to ration the first doses of AstraZeneca so they could ensure an adequate supply of second shots. Nigeria then abandoned AstraZeneca in favor of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, ostensibly due to safety concerns, a sudden policy shift that probably did not help to alleviate vaccine hesitancy.

Africa’s vaccine distribution problems seriously complicate the preferred left-wing political narrative of “vaccine nationalism” – that is, people in underdeveloped countries are dying of Chinese coronavirus because rich countries like the United States are selfishly hoarding vaccines. Based on the results so far, there is no reason to believe that even more massive shipments of vaccines to Africa would not result in more wasted and destroyed medicines. If the immediate tidal wave of supply predicted by “vaccine nationalism” critics had materialized, it would have become more difficult for countries like the DRC to redistribute unused supplies before they expired, and fewer doses would have been regrettably destroyed.

UNICEF on Monday stuck with the “vaccine nationalism” narrative to complain the COVAX program is “undersupplied” because it should have delivered 170 million in doses by now, instead of the 65 million it has provided. UNICEF’s statement railed against “vaccine nationalism” and mentioned “equitable distribution of vaccines” several times, but did not say a single word about wasted doses in Africa or vaccine hesitancy.

Contrary to the “vaccine nationalism” complaint, some African administrators complain the African Union and COVAX shipped them too much medicine too quickly, without a realistic assessment of how rapidly they could perform vaccinations before the doses hit their expiration dates.

“We don’t know why the [African Union’s] donation came when the vaccine was close to its expiry date,” a Malawian health official sighed to CNN, while a W.H.O. official tacitly conceded that “synchronizing vaccination campaigns with the shelf-life of the vaccine at the time of its arrival in a country” in some parts of the world might have been more difficult than expected. 

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