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'So This Was All For Nothing': Indian Vaccine Export Halt Leaves Africa Without Doses

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

India has been grappling with a catastrophic surge of COVID-19 cases, and the impact of that is also being felt in Africa. African countries have been counting on a company in India for nearly all their vaccine against the coronavirus. And that company, Serum Institute of India, announced this week that it doesn't expect to export any vaccine until the end of this year. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: When COVID cases surged in Malawi last January, Alinafe Kasiya's family was hit hard. His sister was the first to get sick. The disease killed her just before her 44th birthday. She'd been healthy, had a job at a bank, was the heart and soul of their clan.

ALINAFE KASIYA: Oh, my goodness. My goodness. My sister was everything. You know, in any family, you have that person who is able to connect you with everyone else.

AIZENMAN: Then another sister, who had cared for his first one, came down with symptoms. Then Kasiya's 13-year-old son got sick while at boarding school. Kasiya wasn't even allowed to visit him while he recovered.

KASIYA: This is a nightmare. I mean, the whole situation was a nightmare.

AIZENMAN: And so in March, after the first doses of COVID vaccine finally started reaching Malawi and Kasiya got his shot, it felt like a day he'd remember for the rest of his life.

KASIYA: That was, like, one of the significant moments.

AIZENMAN: Except the vaccine Kasiya got is AstraZeneca, which means he needs a second dose 12 weeks after the first. And right now, it doesn't look like Malawi is going to get any more doses. The manufacturer providing the Vaccine, Serum Institute of India, has halted all further exports. Kasiya, who is country director for Village Reach, a nonprofit that helps Malawi's government with vaccine rollouts, says he feels like all that relief and hope is being snatched away.

KASIYA: You feel the gains that were made with the first jab (ph) will be kind of, you know, deleted. So this was all for nothing.

AIZENMAN: Across Africa, about 20 million people who are coming due for their second dose of AstraZeneca are facing the same dilemma. And that's not even counting another 140 million who were supposed to get first doses in April, May, June, July. Because African nations were outbid by wealthy countries, practically all of this supply was purchased through an international collaboration called COVAX, which is co-lead by the World Health Organization. And practically all of the vaccine that COVAX bought for Africa was from that one same manufacturer that's halted exports - Serum Institute of India. Dr. John Nkengasong is head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency created for the region by African governments.

JOHN NKENGASONG: Now it has thrown us in total confusion as to where we should reach out to get the additional doses of AstraZeneca.

AIZENMAN: Nkengasong says it's particularly galling because those being left without vaccines are just the highest priority sliver of African populations - health care workers, the elderly. Phionah Atuhebwe coordinates the introduction of new vaccines in Africa for the World Health Organization. She says she and her colleagues are exploring, quote, "all possible options" to cover at least those who are waiting on their second dose. Maybe the interval between the two doses could be safely extended. Maybe they could use a different vaccine for Dose 2. But she says...

PHIONAH ATUHEBWE: The fastest way for Africa to get extra doses right now, especially of AstraZeneca, is dose-sharing by wealthier countries.

AIZENMAN: She says she's heartened by some recent moves in this direction by France, Sweden and the United States, but she says much more is needed. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.