Europe Agrees to Return Millions of Imported Johnson & Johnson Vaccines to Africa – Activists Claim Victory

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen has agreed to return to Africa millions of Johnson & Johnson  (J&J) COVID-19 vaccines that were imported from a South African manufacturer following a meeting with South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa last week.

This was revealed by African Union envoy Strive Masiyiwa said at an Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) press conference on Thursday.

News that J&J had fallen behind in vaccine deliveries to African countries while the Aspen Pharmacare manufacturing facility in South Africa was busy exporting millions of the J&J/ Janssen vaccines to Europe was exposed by the New York Times in mid-August.

The report was met with outrage from civil society activists, African governments and the World Health Organization (WHO) – particularly as Aspen has been lagging behind in its J&J vaccines deliveries to African countries.

However, after Ramaphosa raised the issue with Von der Leyen at the G20 Compact with Africa event on 27 August, she agreed to reverse the imports, said Masiyiwa, who heads the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT).

“All the vaccines produced at Aspen will stay in Africa and will be distributed to Africa,” said Masiyiwa on Thursday.

He added that J&J’s “finish and fill” contract with Aspen would be converted to a license agreement in which J&J would no longer control where the vaccines went. 

But Fatima Hassan, head of the South African Health Justice Initiative (HJI), said that the AU and South African government should not take credit for the EU’s U-turn.

“Civil Society shone a lone light with two New York Times investigative journalists. Mostly, governments were caught napping and unaware,” said Hassan, adding that she was reserving her celebrations until the J&J vaccines were actually returned to the continent.

Meanwhile, AVAT also facilitated the delivery of 12,000 J&J vaccines to the African Union Commission staff, AU embassy staff and their dependents in Addis Ababa this week.

Only a quarter of this group is vaccinated, according to AU Commission Deputy Chairperson Dr Monique Nsanzabaganwa.

“This figure is far below where we need to be, in order to be near normalcy and return to work.  It is therefore pertinent that all staff and supervisors should encourage colleagues to get vaccinated as this is the only way for us to return to our previous working environment”, she said.

The doses, which had been paid for by donors, were delivered by AVAT on Wednesday alongside the first batch of a large J&J order for Ethiopia.

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