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A nurse waits to receive a coronavirus vaccine dose in South Africa

A nurse waits to receive a dose of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine at South Africa's Prince Mshiyeni Hospital on February 18, 2021. (Photo: Mlungisi Mbele/AFP via Getty Images)

'Disgusting': Outrage as J&J Exports Tens of Millions of Vaccine Doses From Africa to EU

"The J&J vaccine was supposed to be one of Africa's most important weapons against Covid. Instead, at least 32 million doses have been shipped out of South Africa to the E.U. as millions suffer and die."

Jake Johnson

The U.S.-based pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has recently exported tens of millions of coronavirus vaccine doses from South Africa to rich European Union countries under an "unusual" contract clause, a revelation that came as the African continent struggles to inoculate even a small percentage of its population against the surging Delta variant.

"Vaccine contracts must be disclosed—now. It is in the public interest to know what other rights have been waived, for whose benefit, and why we are being drip fed."
—Fatima Hassan, Health Justice Initiative

In an op-ed for The Guardian on Monday, former U.K. Prime Minster Gordon Brown wrote that "millions of Covid vaccines manufactured in Africa that should have saved the lives of Africans have been shipped to Europe in recent weeks."

Citing unnamed African leaders, Brown added that "this month and next, about 10 million single-shot Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines filled and finished at the Aspen factory in South Africa will be exported to Europe, at the very time that Africa is grappling with its deadliest wave of Covid-19 infections yet."

"Compared with the swift development of the pathbreaking Covid vaccines, getting shots into all the world's arms should be straightforward," Brown continued. "But vaccine nationalism—and Europe's neocolonial approach to global health—is dividing the world into rich and protected people, who live, and those who are poor, unprotected and at risk of dying."

The People's Vaccine Alliance, a international coalition of advocacy groups campaigning for equitable vaccine distribution, reacted with outrage to Brown's column, calling the export of much-needed vaccines out of Africa "disgusting."

Brown's allegation that millions of J&J vaccine doses have been shipped out of Africa—where less than 2% of the population is fully vaccinated—was confirmed by the New York Times, which reported Monday that the pharmaceutical giant "had shipped 32 million doses in recent months, although that does not capture the full number that have left South Africa."

"This is further proof that the world cannot trust a handful of pharmaceutical companies to fairly allocate vaccines across the world."
—Mohga Kamal-Yanni, People's Vaccine Alliance

Last year, the South African pharmaceutical company Aspen—the largest drug company in Africa—reached a deal with J&J under which Aspen is tasked with carrying out the "fill and finish" stage of vaccine production.

"The J&J vaccine was supposed to be one of Africa's most important weapons against Covid," said the People's Vaccine Alliance. "Instead, at least 32 million doses have been shipped out of South Africa to the E.U. as millions suffer and die."

The Times noted that while "many Western countries have kept domestically manufactured doses for themselves," that "wasn't possible in South Africa because of an unusual stipulation in the contract the government signed this year with Johnson & Johnson."

"The confidential contract, reviewed by the Times, required South Africa to waive its right to impose export restrictions on vaccine doses," the newspaper reported. "Johnson & Johnson had always planned for some vaccines produced by Aspen to leave Africa, but it has never disclosed how many doses it was actually exporting."

"South Africa is still waiting to receive the overwhelming majority of the 31 million vaccine doses it ordered from Johnson & Johnson," the Times observed.

Popo Maja, a spokesperson for the South African health ministry, told the Times in a statement that the government had no leverage to reject the stipulation of the contract, under which the African continent is supposed to receive a percentage of the finished vaccine doses. Originally that percentage was just 10%, but it was later revised so that 40% of the vaccine doses finished by Aspen would go to Europe and 60% to Africa through the end of September.

"The government was not given any choice," Maja said. "Sign contract or no vaccine."

South Africa is currently reeling from a third coronavirus wave that was driven largely by the highly transmissible Delta mutation, which overwhelmed the country's healthcare system and pushed the nation's total Covid-19 death toll over 77,000. The country has officially recorded more than 2.6 million coronavirus cases.

The African continent as a whole has been battered by the coronavirus as governments there have struggled to launch vaccination programs due in large part to inadequate supplies—shortages that experts have attributed to the pharmaceutical industry's monopoly control over vaccine production and critical technology.

In an effort to boost the global vaccine supply, South Africa joined India last year in proposing a temporary suspension of patent protections to allow for the manufacturing of generic alternatives in low-income nations. Rich members of the World Trade Organization, including Germany and the U.K., have stonewalled the proposal.

Germany is one of the E.U. countries that has received J&J vaccine doses finished in South Africa.

Fatima Hassan, founder and director of the South Africa-based Health Justice Initiative, said the arrangement that J&J reportedly forced on South Africa is "the sickening result of the free market in a pandemic—while Africa waits for supplies and gets a drip feed, more vaccine stock is diverted to Europe."

"This is grotesque," Hassan added. "This is why the vaccine contracts must be disclosed—now. It is in the public interest to know what other rights have been waived, for whose benefit, and why we are being drip fed."

In a statement Monday, Mohga Kamal-Yanni, senior health policy adviser to the People's Vaccine Alliance, said that "while South Africa was experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises to arise from Covid-19, J&J diverted desperately needed vaccines to wealthy countries."

"It's utterly abhorrent and shows a total disregard for African life," said Kamal-Yann. "This is further proof that the world cannot trust a handful of pharmaceutical companies to fairly allocate vaccines across the world. Pharma executives seem all too happy to write off African deaths to line their own pockets."

"Without urgent action, more of these tragedies could be around the corner," Kamal-Yann added. "It is time for governments to break pharmaceutical companies' monopolies on knowledge and technology of vaccines and other tools to deal with Covid-19. We should develop domestic manufacturing in low-and-middle-income countries, not siphon off doses to the rich world."


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