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Widespread criticism forces European Commission to review supply deal which ignored emergency needs in Africa
After activists in South Africa demanded to see details of their government's contracts with Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies, under which locally-bottled vaccines were to be shipped to the West, the European Commission announced it was reviewing the agreement initiated by its vaccine procurement office.
The agreement also drew criticism from Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who said he was 'stunned' to hear that vaccines produced in South Africa were being shipped to Europe. The 'divide between the haves and have nots will only grow larger if manufacturers and leaders prioritise booster shots over supply to low- and middle-income countries,' he said.
The row over the deal shows the complexity of global pharmaceutical supply chains and the lack of effective policy to address the chronic vaccine shortage in developing countries.
On 19 August the European Commission said it had temporarily amended arrangements under which it would use a vaccine plant in South Africa to bottle or 'fill and finish' Covid-19 vaccines that are being imported into Europe. An official said the arrangements were necessary because of supply chain problems in the United States.
The deal was the first contract for Covid-19 vaccines to be processed and finished in Africa; it was meant to have been part of a wider plan by the European Union to promote international investment in vaccine hubs across the continent. But as news leaked out about the arrangement, it quickly became a political problem for the EU, South Africa and the companies involved.
Part of the problem is the low level of vaccination delivery to Africa. Earlier this month, an EU document revealed that around 4% of the 200 million Covid-19 vaccines promised had been delivered to African states.
Britain's former Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused the EU of a 'neo-colonial attitude', adding that because of vaccine oversupply for wealthy nations, 45 out of 54 African countries would miss their September target of vaccinating 10% of their citizens. The EU's approach is mirrored in Britain and the United States.
At the heart of the crisis is the reluctance of the world's biggest economies in the G20 to implement the IMF's $50bn plan to finance global coordination of production and distribution of vaccines with clear schedules for 2021 and 2022 (AC Dispatches 06/08/21, Europe's economies race to look good).
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