U.S. Hold on Some COVID Vaccines Leaves Millions of Doses Unused in Africa

More than 1 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses that should have been administered already in Africa are on hold in a South African pharmaceutical facility. Rollout of the vaccines was halted following concerns of possible contamination at a U.S. factory.

The director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said one-dose vaccines like J&J's are extremely important to Africa because they don't require the same extreme storage conditions as other brands. John Nkengasong said he anticipates an update from the U.S. in the next few days on whether the stock of J&J vaccines can be used.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization said that coronavirus cases were up by 20 percent in Africa over the past two weeks, while vaccine shipments have dwindled. "The threat of a third wave in Africa is real and rising," WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said. "Our priority is clear. It's crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying of COVID-1."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

South Africa Vaccination Site
A health worker picks syringes as seniors get vaccinated with the first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at the newly opened mass vaccination program for the elderly at a drive-thru vaccination center in Johannesburg, South Africa, on May 25. Themba Hadebe/AP Photo

Moeti repeated Africa's ongoing plea that richer countries that have reached "significant vaccination coverage" now release their remaining doses. Africa has administered vaccine doses to 31 million people out of its population of 1.3 billion. But only 7 million of those have received both doses.

Moeti's plea came hours before President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would share some of its vaccines.

Sub-Saharan Africa has on average administered only one vaccine dose per 100 people, Moeti said, compared with a global average of 23 doses per 100 people. Some higher income countries have even reached 62 doses per 100 people, she added.

The issue with contamination of Johnson & Johnson doses at a U.S. facility is a tiny part of the problem, but it's a crucial one right now for South Africa, which has more than 1.6 million virus cases and more than 56,000 deaths, the most in Africa by far.

South Africa has seen a positivity rate of around 11 to 12 percent among people tested for the virus in recent days, well above the 5 percent threshold that South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said marks "a cause for concern."

Meanwhile, the country's vaccine rollout has faced a number of hurdles. The country ultimately rejected the first vaccine available over concerns about whether AstraZeneca showed enough efficacy against the variant first detected in South Africa—now referred to by WHO as the beta variant.

Now the contamination problems at the Emergent BioSolutions plant in Baltimore earlier this year have directly affected South Africa's already lagging rollout. South Africa's health department was due to receive 1.1 million J&J doses in May. Another 900,000 were then meant to be delivered at the start of June, according to the government's schedule.

Both batches are in South Africa but remain frustratingly on hold after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shut down the Emergent plant in mid-April and put a lockdown on any doses that might be linked to it across the world. South Africa has vaccinated only 1.1 million of its 60 million people, and more than half of them have only received one dose of a two-dose vaccine.

Nkengasong said he was in contact earlier Thursday with J&J officials and they told him an announcement by the FDA was expected Friday or early next week.

South Africa wasn't the only country affected by the contamination in Baltimore, Nkengasong said. Also at stake is the African Union's 220 million dose deal with Johnson & Johnson set for delivery later this year, which could eventually rise to 400 million doses total.

"Our entire strategy is underpinned" by the J&J agreement, Nkengasong said of Africa.

On Tuesday, the FDA declined to comment on when it might resolve the concerns over Emergent's factory, which included poorly trained workers and dirty walls and floors, and led to the immediate discarding of 15 million J&J doses connected to the factory.

Johnson & Johnson said that it was working with the FDA and Emergent toward resolving the situation "as soon as possible" but didn't comment on any specifics of the FDA investigation.

Future Africa
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, flanked by French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, speaks during the launch of an initiative to support COVID-19 vaccine production at the "Future Africa" campus in Pretoria on May 28. Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images