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African countries temporarily suspend AstraZeneca vaccine

Daniel Pelz
March 17, 2021

Several African countries have banned the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing possible side effects. The move follows similar measures by European states — but it could seriously hinder Africa's vaccine rollout.

A volunteer receives an injection from a medical worker during the country's first human clinical trial for a potential vaccine against the novel coronavirus, at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto
Some African countries are now also discontinuing the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine amid concerns over potential side-effectsImage: Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

When more than 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo in early March, Health Minister Eteni Longondo was personally on hand to receive them.

"The vaccinations will enable us to protect and save lives. We must encourage the target population to be vaccinated," the United Nations quoted him as saying.

Initially, the Congolese government had planned to use this first shipment to vaccinate 20% of its population, including health workers, people aged over 55, and people suffering from serious health conditions such as kidney disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

But that plan now looks unlikely to go ahead. On Monday, the government announced it would temporarily suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing recent fears over potential side effects.

"We are waiting for the conclusion of the research that is being done by the Europeans and also by our own scientific committee and then we will make a final decision," Longondo clarified to reporters. "Maybe in two or three weeks, we will have these conclusions."

Map showing African countries that have received vaccines

Fears over side effects supersede rollout

DR Congo has joined a host of other African nations that have also suspended the use of AstraZeneca.

"The scientific council suggests that we do not continue to use this vaccine until the preliminary investigations are completed," Cameroon's health minister, Manaouda Malachie, told journalists, adding that his country would store all doses received so far until there was more clarity about the safety and side effects of the vaccine.

Over a dozen European countries stopped administering the AstraZeneca vaccine this week following reports that it could lead to potentially dangerous blood clots. The European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO) are currently investigating the reports.

WHO calls for vaccinations to continue

Meanwhile, WHO has urged countries to continue using the AstraZeneca vaccine as part of their vaccination strategies. 

"At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue," the organization said in a statement on Wednesday.

However, WHO also highlighted the importance of investigating the claims of side effects.

Workers load South Africa's first coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine doses
South Africa received its first shipment of vaccines in FebruaryImage: via REUTERS

"In extensive vaccination campaigns, it is routine for countries to signal potential adverse events following immunization," the statement continued. "This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to vaccination itself, but it is good practice to investigate them. It also shows that the surveillance system works and that effective controls are in place." 

Several African countries continue to heed that advice.

Muluken Yohannes, an adviser to Ethiopia's Ministry of Health, told DW that Ethiopia will continue administering the AstraZeneca vaccine unless any concrete evidence of safety risks is identified.

Ghana is also still administering the jab. "As a country, we embrace it and so a number of people have already received the vaccines and we have no reports of any serious threats," Augustina Sylverken, an expert in Tropical Medicine with the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine, told DW.

A vial of the AstraZeneca vaccine
The WHO maintains the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine far outweigh any potential risksImage: Valentina Petrova/AP Photo/picture alliance

Could the suspension hurt the vaccination drive?

However, experts say that Africa's vaccination drive against the coronavirus pandemic could still be hampered by the ongoing debate around the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite advice from medical regulators and other experts in the field to continue administering the jab. 

"There are many people who are skeptical about the disease," Seni Kouanda, an epidemiologist at the African Institute of Public Health, told DW. "For them, the vaccine is the same thing. The side effects, for them, are a godsend. Such skeptics might also refuse vaccination, at least with AstraZeneca, if the campaigns continue."

AstraZeneca was initially seen as a breakthrough in the fight against coronavirus, especially in developing countries. It is much cheaper and far easier to distribute and administer than the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine that needs to be stored at extremely low temperatures.

Twenty-five African countries have been supplied with AstraZeneca vaccines through COVAX, a joint initiative from WHO and the international vaccine alliance GAVI. 

Mimi Mefo, Reliou Koubakin, Solomon Muchie and Zakari Sadou contributed to this report.