African Union Special Envoy Slams COVAX as COVID Deaths Spike on the Continent, Urges Donors to ‘Pay up’ on Vaccine Pledges
COVAX made promises of 700 million doses but delivered 30-40 million, says African Union Special Envoy.

The African Union (AU) Special Envoy on COVID-19 has bluntly blamed the WHO co-sponsored COVAX facility for the dire vaccine shortage on the continent, saying that it had failed to disclose its vaccine supply problems early enough.

Strive Masiyiwa, AU Special Envoy and head of the African COVID-19 Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) said that had COVAX been honest about its lack of vaccine supplies at the start of the year, the continent might not be facing such a dire shortage of vaccines.

When AVATT met COVAX “back in January”, said Masiyiwa, “we were given a schedule in writing that we would receive vaccines from the end of February, going through to December”.

“But COVAX failed to disclose that they were still trying to get money, that pledges [of $8.2 billion] which had been made by certain donors had not been met,” said Masiyiwa, in his most forthright condemnation of the global vaccine platform yet.

“That’s pretty material information. Had we known that actually this was hope and not reality, we may have acted very differently,” Masiyiwa told the Africa CDC weekly COVID briefing on Thursday, which also disclosed that AVATT had procured 400 million COVID-19 single-dose vaccines from Johnson & Johnson that will start to arrive next month.

Early Indications that Serum Institute of India Could Not Deliver

Strive Masiyiwa, African Union Special Envoy and head of the AU COVID-19 Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT)

He also questioned the global vaccine programme’s reliance on the Serum Institute of India (SII), revealing that AVATT had met with the SII late in 2020 – well before India’s COVID crisis – and decided not to do business with it because it was clear it would be unable to meet its orders.

“We found ourselves in March, scrambling. Now we are told that is India’s problem. And we think the problems are much deeper than that,” said Masiyiwa.

“We will not solve our problem because of donations. We will solve our problem because we’ve gone out and we have bought our vaccines,” he added, disclosing that all but two African countries had secured loans to pay for the AVATT-acquired vaccines.

“The price we pay for any vaccine is exactly the same price as COVAX. I can tell you on this platform because I’ve heard silly rumours. We purchase the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at $7.50 per dose,” he added, saying that AVATT would be “transparent” about vaccine prices.

Masiyiwa said that the Johnson & Johnson order – to be delivered over the course of a year – would cover half the continent’s people, while donors had undertaken to come up with the other half.

“We are moving hard ahead on our commitment. We always said we would start around about August, and the shipments are being prepared. The countries are being prepared. But we are calling on the donor community to stop making pledges, pay up your money and meet the commitments you’ve made. Because we’ve heard the pledges. We just need to see the vaccines now.”

Meanwhile, Kate Elder, Medecins sans Frontieres policy advisor on vaccines, described COVAX as having been “constructed to work within the current parameters of the pharmaceutical market, where you see how much money you can raise and then see what you can negotiate with industry for it”. 

“COVAX was not set up to succeed,” said Elder, speaking shortly before a recent board meeting of the global vaccine body, Gavi, which manages COVAX. “COVAX was left behind as wealthy governments secured their doses through bilateral deals with an industry that acted as expected: selling doses first to the buyers who could afford to pay the most.”

“COVAX is currently grossly behind on achieving its goals. COVAX had aimed to provide two billion doses by the end of 2021, but so far has only distributed 88 million (the goal by the end of June was to distribute around 337 million),” said MSF.

“Less than half of one percent of total populations of COVAX countries have received at least a first dose of vaccine through COVAX. As the global health community increasingly discusses models to be prepared for future pandemics, MSF cautions that the shortcomings of the COVAX model must not be replicated.”


Image Credits: WHO.

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