Report

Biden to Ship Millions of Vaccines to Africa

The United States will donate 25 million doses as African countries reel from a third wave of COVID-19.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and
Workers unload vaccine shipments in Cote d’Ivoire.
Workers unload a shipment of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines from a plane in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Feb. 26. Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images

The United States is preparing to send its first shipment of coronavirus vaccines to African countries as health officials across the continent grapple with new waves of the virus and some of the lowest vaccination rates in the world.

In an announcement anticipated on Friday, the Biden administration is expected to deliver 25 million vaccine doses to African countries in the coming weeks, beginning with initial shipments of Johnson & Johnson vaccines to Burkina Faso, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, according to a White House official.

“We are working to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people around the world as fast as possible,” the official said.

The United States is preparing to send its first shipment of coronavirus vaccines to African countries as health officials across the continent grapple with new waves of the virus and some of the lowest vaccination rates in the world.

In an announcement anticipated on Friday, the Biden administration is expected to deliver 25 million vaccine doses to African countries in the coming weeks, beginning with initial shipments of Johnson & Johnson vaccines to Burkina Faso, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, according to a White House official.

“We are working to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people around the world as fast as possible,” the official said.

The delivery comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths across the continent that the World Health Organization (WHO) warns is bringing Africa’s public health systems to a “breaking point.” African countries have reported 1 million new cases in the past month alone and a 43 percent increase in recorded deaths over the past week from the week prior—6,273 deaths from 4,384 deaths.

“Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point,” Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, said during a virtual press conference on Thursday. “Underresourced health systems in countries are facing dire shortages of the health workers, supplies, equipment, and infrastructure needed to provide care to severely ill COVID-19 patients.”

U.N. health officials have warned that new and deadlier variants of COVID-19 could emerge in countries that don’t have a handle on their outbreaks, particularly poorer countries without adequate health care infrastructure.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced a pledge in May to send 80 million vaccine doses abroad as part of his administration’s global response to the coronavirus pandemic. The delivery of vaccines to Africa will be coordinated with the African Union and COVAX, the international joint venture aimed at distributing vaccines globally. It comes as the United States’ top geopolitical rivals, Russia and China, have sent shipments of their own vaccines to developing countries around the world—at times in apparent efforts to gain more political or economic leverage over the recipient governments.

The vast majority of vaccines from China have been sold to countries, rather than donated. As of Monday, 6.7 million vaccine doses have been donated to African countries out of roughly 27.9 million doses total, according to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based group tracking Chinese vaccine diplomacy worldwide. Morocco, Egypt, and Zimbabwe have all received an outsized proportion of Chinese vaccines delivered to the continent, with Morocco receiving more than 10.5 million shots.

China has sought to cast itself as the global leader in vaccine diplomacy, despite the Chinese government covering up the initial outbreak of the virus in the critical early months of its spread and a subsequent disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the pandemic.

“China has upheld the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind and a global community of health for all and made important contributions to the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in developing countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference last month.

Trials show that the Chinese vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac, have a lower efficacy against COVID-19 than the vaccines developed in the West, including the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

U.S. officials have insisted that their drive to ship more vaccines abroad is focused solely on public health. “Our vaccines do not come with strings attached. We are doing this with the singular objective of saving lives,” the White House official said.

The initial shipment comes as African countries struggle with vaccine supply shortages amid a surge in new cases. African countries lag far behind wealthier Western countries in acquiring and distributing vaccines, prompting international public health officials to sound the alarm bell as cases spike.

The African Union has set a goal to vaccinate 60 percent of the population on the continent and, through COVAX, deliver 620 million doses by the end of 2021 and 1 billion by the first quarter of 2022. But supply bottlenecks have hampered those efforts. Moeti said only 53 million doses have so far been administered and just 18 million Africans are fully vaccinated—around 1.4 percent of the continent’s total population of 1.3 billion.

Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia have accounted for the bulk of the surge in fatalities in Africa, according to WHO. African Union member states have recorded 6,120,888 cases of COVID-19 and 155,502 deaths in total, according to data released on Friday. Public health experts warn that the number of infections and death toll in Africa could be far higher, particularly in poorer developing countries on the continent without adequate health care infrastructure and limited health data in conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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