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Vaccine Deliveries in Africa Gain Momentum With New Shipments From Covax, China and J&J’s New Jab on the Way

The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines supplied by the global Covax alliance arrived in Ghana on Wednesday. Nipah Dennis / AFP

The world’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines supplied by the WHO-led Covax alliance landed at Kotoka International Airport in Accra on Wednesday adding new momentum to the pace of vaccine deliveries on the continent. This particular batch included 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine that was manufactured at the Serum Institute of India. 

While it’s promising that Covax shipments are now finally starting to make their way to Africa, they’re way behind schedule. Originally, Covax officials had promised to deliver 15 million doses to the continent in February and another 40 million next month, but global supply constraints have made that all but impossible.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine that, like China’s CanSinoBIO, requires only a single shot and no expensive subzero cold chain infrastructure. Both are suited for widespread distribution to developing countries.

These two developments, the Covax shipment, and the J&J approval are giving new confidence to stakeholders in the U.S. and Europe that the West will no longer be on the sidelines in the race against China and Russia to supply vaccines to the developing world. “China winning vaccine diplomacy battle, but will lose the war,” declared today’s edition of Politico’s Global Translation newsletter showcasing the widely-shared desire in Washington, D.C. to frame the vaccine distribution within the context of the U.S.-China great power rivalry. 

But it’s important to be cautious of this kind of narrative framing of COVAX as somehow a Western alternative to China given that a) China is actually a member of COVAX and b) COVAX is not a US/European initiative but a global endeavor led by GAVI and the World Health Organization.

The Rapidly Changing Geopolitics of Vaccine Politics in Africa

  • U.S.-CHINA: The feeling among U.S. policymakers is that with herd immunity at least on the horizon, possibly before the end of the year, the White House can now start to think about what it will take to reclaim some of the soft power credibility it has lost to China and Russia in terms of vaccine distribution. 
  • CHINA’S RESPONSE: Expect the Chinese to respond by amping up the rhetoric against the U.S. and Europe for its “vaccine nationalism” while at the same time pushing hard to increase the number of vaccine distribution announcements in Africa as we saw just this week in Algeria, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Egypt, among many others. The Chinese are going to fight hard to hold on to their current narrative advantage on this issue.
  • LOGISTICS: U.S. and European governments may finally be prepared to start shipping vaccines to Africa but they’re going to find that without a robust logistics and distribution operation in place, it won’t be easy. Officials at Ethiopian Airlines (ET) confirmed that European stakeholders are still far behind in that planning. The Chinese had a three-month head-start with the development of their ET-Alibaba powered logistics network, which is now operational.

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