Vials with a sticker reading, ‘COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only’ and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Johnson & Johnson logo in this illustration (REUTERS)

EU to return millions of doses of J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine imported from Africa

The European Union will return to Africa millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine that it received from a plant in South Africa, following criticism by health activists that the bloc was taking away shots from a continent that has the lowest immunization rate in the world.

Strive Masiyiwa, who heads the African Union’s Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, said the decision to return the shots produced at Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. was made at a meeting between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last week. As part of the deal, the EU will also not take doses from the Aspen plant it was expecting in September, Mr. Masiyiwa said.

Aspen has a contract with J&J to fill into vials and package the U.S. company’s vaccine, with some 40% of its production slated for export to Europe through September and the rest going to African countries. “That arrangement has been suspended,” Mr. Masiyiwa said at a news briefing Thursday. “All the vaccines from this facility are now under the control of the South African government.”

Mr. Masiyiwa said that the total number of vaccines that will be sent back to Africa has yet to be determined, but that the EU in total received fewer than 20 million doses, of which all the ones that are still sitting in warehouses would be returned.

A spokesman for the European Commission declined to comment. A J&J spokesman said the company doesn’t direct the allocation of its vaccines within countries and wasn’t involved “in negotiations that have occurred in some cases between countries relating to the reallocation or donation of the vaccine.”

The African Union has made a deal to buy up to 400 million doses of J&J’s single-dose vaccine, enough to vaccinate around 30% of its citizens. However, only about 50 million of those doses were due to be delivered this year, a figure that Mr. Masiyiwa said should increase to around 70 million thanks to the agreement with the EU.

African countries have struggled to secure shots, as rich economies such as the EU and the U.S. bought up much of the 2021 production. Most were counting on free vaccines they had been promised by the World Health Organization’s Covax program, which has fallen far short of its targets.

As a result, less than 3% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, while around 58% of Europeans have been fully immunized, according to Our World in Data, a project based at the University of Oxford. The WHO warned Thursday that 42 of Africa’s 54 countries will likely miss a target of vaccinating at least 10% of their citizens by the end of September. The continent is currently suffering through a record wave of infections driven by the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus.

African officials say a key reason why the continent has been left behind in the global vaccination race is because it doesn’t produce enough shots at home, leaving it vulnerable to export restrictions elsewhere. Aspen is currently the only plant on the continent making one of the leading Western vaccines and is dependent on importing the drug substance used in the shots from Europe or the U.S.

In its annual results presentation on Wednesday, Aspen said it was in talks with J&J to secure a license to manufacture, market and sell its vaccine in Africa, a move that it called a “game-changer for African control over access.”

Mr. Masiyiwa said such a license should also allow Aspen to make the drug substance for the vaccine, which he said could be achieved within three years. The J&J spokesman said the two companies were “in discussions to evaluate the further expansion of capacity at Aspen’s vaccine manufacturing facility to enable increased Covid-19 vaccine production, including a possible license for Africa.

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