The World Health Organisation (WHO) is weighing up allowing African countries to use expired vaccines in the management of Covid-19. This is because African countries are reporting shortages of the AstraZeneca vaccine. WHO says it will this week consult Indian health authorities to determine if expired AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine can be used in countries like Nigeria which benefit from its COVAX facility.
WHO Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, stated this during an interview with select journalists last Thursday. The idea, it was learnt, had been discussed with all ministers of health in Africa including Nigeria’s Health Minister, Dr. Osagie. The move, it was learnt, had become necessary due to the scarcity of AstraZeneca vaccine caused by the recent surge in Covid-19 infections in India which is the manufacturer of the vaccine.
Moeti said, “On Tuesday I met with ministers in the African region to discuss key issues, particularly around expiring doses, supply shortages, vaccine safety and misinformation. The WHO is awaiting additional stability data from the Serum Institute of India to determine if the shelf life of AstraZeneca Covid-19 doses can be extended from six months to nine months. For doses that have already expired, the WHO is looking closely at the regulatory, scientific, logistical and problematic challenges and will issue a statement next week (this week).”
The BBC had reported last week that many vaccines could be used up to 36 months after manufacture, but because Covid-19 jabs are relatively new, there is not enough data to prove their effectiveness over longer periods. It noted that the WHO had in April urged African countries not to destroy Covid-19 vaccines that might have passed their expiry date but keep hold of them and wait for further guidance.
The WHO regional director said, “We are encouraging countries to prioritise the first dose to reach more people rather than saving supplies for the second dose. It is imperative that the available doses are used as quickly as possible to protect people from severe disease and death due to Covid-19.”
The issue of unequal access came up soon after pharmaceutical companies in Europe and America announced they had begun rolling out Covid-19 vaccines with a claim of over 90 percent efficacy against certain variants of the Corona virus. The WHO was very vocal calling for equitable distribution of the drugs. This has not happened. The richer western world has cornered greater amounts of the vaccines to the detriment of poorer countries, most of them in Africa.
However, we do not support recycling of expired vaccines to solve the shortage problem in Africa. Yes, Covid-19 is a serious public health challenge in particularly Africa whose health systems are very weak. But we do not think a resort to expired vaccines will be a solution to the problem for exactly the same reasons that the WHO has given for delaying a decision on the matter. Africa should not be turned into a dumping ground for vaccines that have expired. The AstraZeneca vaccine is said to have led to blood clotting in some people who have received the jabs in the United States. Just imagine what further damage an expired vaccine will do!
The WHO can help by underwriting part of the cost of the vaccine for African countries. In the longer run, those nations with the financial, scientific and technological capacities should explore the possibility of producing Covid-19 vaccines of their own.