Europe is returning the J&J vaccine doses it imported from South Africa

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J&J vaccine South Africa
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  • The European Union will be returning Covid-19 vaccine doses imported from South Africa.
  • And from now on, vaccines that are fill-and-finish prepared in South Africa will stay on the continent, says the AU's envoy.
  • The export of vaccines – from a continent with miserable coverage to one that has reached herd immunity – drew heavy fire.
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The European Union will be returning doses of Covid-19 vaccine it imported from South Africa, and no more doses will leave the continent.

That is in terms of a deal reached between President Cyril Ramaphosa and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen last week, African Union envoy Strive Masiyiwa said at a press conference on Thursday.

Local company Aspen Pharmacare held a contract with Johnson & Johnson for fill-and-finish manufacturing of its vaccine. The J&J shot is particularly prized in the African context because it is administered as a single dose, and does not require extremely cold storage and transport.

In terms of that contract, South Africa could not hang on to the doses made ready here – and 10 million were due to be shipped to Europe during August and September.

But that contract will now be converted to a licence agreement that will see J&J relinquish control over where the vaccine doses go. Vaccines made in South Africa will be "African branded", said Masiyiwa.

"All the vaccines produced at Aspen will stay in Africa and will be distributed to Africa," said Masiyiwa.

Aspen expects to be capable of producing 500 million doses of the J&J vaccine from January 2022.

The AU has previously expressed concern that vaccine nationalism would see first-world countries block the export of Covid-19 vaccine doses earmarked for the African continent, even as vaccines made ready on the continent are shipped to the global north.

Ramaphosa met Von der Leyen at the G20 Compact with Africa event, and related networking opportunities, in Berlin on 27 August. Neither spoke about the details afterwards.

But on Thursday Masiyiwa said that, during these meetings, Von der Leyen had revealed she had not previously been aware of the deal to export J&J doses from South Africa to the EU.

By the time of the meeting, the export deal had already faced heavy criticism from the likes of the World Health Organisation, to which the EU responded by describing the exports as a "temporary measure", a stopgap in the face of a shortfall caused by problems at an American factory.

Days after meeting Ramaphosa, Von der Leyen announced that the European Union had reached a herd-immunity target of vaccinating 70% of adults in the bloc. South Africa is on track to reach 25% coverage for adults soon, but much of the rest of the continent is far behind that, with average continent-wide vaccinations coming in at around 3%.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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