On Monday, March 29th, Johnson & Johnson announced the company will supply the African Union (AU) with up to 400 million doses of its COVID-19 inoculation. Distribution will begin in the third quarter, the drugmaker reported in its Monday press conference. The distribution will continue to the end of next year, delivering much needed aid to a continent comparatively trailing in its COVID-19 vaccination rates. The American pharmaceutical company can provide as many as 230 million doses of its one-shot vaccine to the 55 member states in the AU beginning in April of 2021. The remaining 180 million doses will then be delivered in the following year.
This deal follows months long negotiations between the AU and the U.S. drugmaker, as well as detailed plans to purchase 270 million doses of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Pfizer-BioNTech. The status of negotiations between the AU and the other two companies, however, is unknown. Though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was available to the public much later than those of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, the J&J vaccine has gained widespread global acceptance, particularly in Africa, due to its single-dose shot. In a conversation with Reuters, the director of the Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, stated, “J&J requires just a single dose, it makes it a very good programmatically to rollout,”. Nkengasong also claimed the price of the J&J single dose vaccine was likely to be close to $10.
The spread of the coronavirus pandemic has hit the African continent particularly hard, and with growing cases of new African variants with the continent, controlling spread has been especially difficult. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC), at least 40 AU member states have now seen a second wave of the pandemic, including all countries in southern Africa. A press release from the CDC states, “This new wave of infections is thought to be associated with the emergence of variants that are more transmissible.” New, more transmissible variants which originated in South African have now spread north, and continue to pose new challenges for local and state governments attempting to control transmission. Elsewhere in Africa, the South African variant has been officially recorded in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Comoros, Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. The variant is suspected to have reached other countries on the continent, but frail infrastructure across the continent has made it difficult to record. This, in combination with the political turmoil and economic instability faced by many African countries, has made spread almost impossible to contain.
According to the WHO, “Initial analysis indicates that the [South African] variant… may spread more readily between people.” Yet, the variant is not known to cause more serious illness. The issue, however, lies in the protection offered by the three, currently approved vaccines. New studies, including one from the University of the Witwatersrand, have shown the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – the first to have been approved in South Africa – offers very little protection against mild to moderate cases of coronavirus arising from the new strain. However, these studies have yet to investigate the efficacy of inoculation in the prevention of more serious infections.
Despite this, within South Africa and on the continent, there has been a 40% increase in the number of reported deaths over the past few months. According to the WHO, total deaths on the continent have now reached 100,000. In Nigeria, researchers have also identified a new COVID-19 variant. The ramifications of that are yet to be seen. There are large disparities in testing rates across the continent; some countries have reduced testing while others have either maintained or increased the amount of testing during the pandemic. According to many CDC officials, widespread vaccination is of the utmost importance in order to stop increased transmission and further deaths across the continent. While applauding the deal struck with J&J, experts indicate the necessity for similar deals to be made with the two other main COVID-19 vaccine producers, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, in order to prevent further spread and death.
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