'Trojan horse': bulk of UK vaccine donations to poor countries set to expire in September

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Vaccines arrive in Mogadishu, Somalia earlier this year through the Covax distribution scheme, which will receive five million shots from the UK in the coming weeks - AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh
Vaccines arrive in Mogadishu, Somalia earlier this year through the Covax distribution scheme, which will receive five million shots from the UK in the coming weeks - AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

The bulk of nine million coronavirus vaccines donated by the UK to developing countries in the coming weeks will expire at the end of September, raising concerns that many of the doses will go to waste.

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, announced on Wednesday that Britain will begin delivering nine million AstraZeneca shots this week, as part of a broader pledge to donate 100 million surplus vaccines by June 2022.

Roughly five million of these vaccines will be sent to the Covax distribution scheme, while the remainder will be given directly to more than a dozen countries – including 817,000 doses to Kenya, 600,000 to Indonesia and 300,000 to Jamaica.

“We’re doing this to help the most vulnerable, but also because we know we won’t be safe until everyone is safe,” Mr Raab said.

While he donations have been widely welcomed amid vast inequalities in global distribution, there are mounting concerns that the vaccines’ short shelf life could undermine the rollout.

The Telegraph understands that a substantial chunk of the shots arriving in countries in August will expire at the end of September.

Dr Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance, likened the donations to a “Trojan horse”.

“All sharing of vaccine doses is very much welcome from G7 countries,” she told The Telegraph. “However, there is a concern that the limited shelf life could actually be detrimental to all of our efforts to contain this pandemic.

“Delivery of vaccines in Africa needs to be coordinated by and with Africans, to ensure our systems are not overwhelmed. At this moment health systems are already stretched to the max, with health workers dying while trying to contain this third wave. So the limited shelf life really is of concern.”

Already, several countries around the world have struggled to distribute doses that were due to expire before they could be used – both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs have a shelf life of six months.

In May, Malawi was forced to incinerate 20,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. While the manufacturer suggested they would be safe for another three months, ministers were concerned that using them would hit already shaky vaccine confidence.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of Congo sent 1.3 million unwanted doses to countries including Togo and Senegal because they could not administer them before they expired. And South Sudan sent 72,000 shots to Kenya.

A medical health worker administers the AstraZeneca vaccine during a door-to-door visit to deliver the vaccines to people who live far from health facilities in Siaya, Kenya - BRIAN ONGORO/AFP
A medical health worker administers the AstraZeneca vaccine during a door-to-door visit to deliver the vaccines to people who live far from health facilities in Siaya, Kenya - BRIAN ONGORO/AFP

Now there are concerns that some countries will be unable to distribute the UK’s surplus AstraZeneca shots in the narrow window available.

“We are setting up African countries to fail with leftover vaccines,” said Nanjala Nyabola, a political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. “This should never have happened – if the vaccines were made available to purchase fairly none of this would even arise.

“Expecting a system in a poor country to distribute 817,000 vaccines in a matter of a few weeks, in the context of all these other challenges, is setting them up to fail,” she told The Telegraph.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) declined to comment directly on when the coronavirus vaccines will expire, but said countries had assured the UK that they would be able to distribute them in time.

An official involved in the Covax rollout, who confirmed that much of the first tranche of doses shared by the UK will expire at the end of September, added: “Covax requires there’s at least two months until expiry of doses, and that countries have the capacity and systems in place to immediately absorb supply and rollout.”

Dr Seth Berkley – chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is co-leading the Covax scheme – said the UK has been a “steadfast supporter” of the initiative since its inception, and the vaccine donations come at an “important time”.

“Global vaccine demand is far outstripping supply, leaving millions of the most vulnerable unprotected, while higher vaccine coverage worldwide is one of our best shields against new variants,” he said.

But, while the UK has contributed more than £500 million to Covax, Britain’s approach of sharing surplus doses is in contrast to the United States. Under President Joe Biden, America has bought 500 million doses of the Pfizer jab for almost 100 countries worldwide.

There are also fears that donor countries will share doses at once, with domestic rollouts nearing completion and supply constraints easing. Experts say this could leave recipient countries with a sudden surge in supply that further complicates their rollout – especially if it includes a range of different jabs.

“Low income countries need a steady supply that they can get off the tarmac and into the arms of health care workers,” Unicef’s vaccine lead, Lily Caprani, warned in an interview with BBC Newsnight last month.

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