Zimbabwe's government is facing criticism for turning down a donation of three million doses of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.
Authorities say they are not prepared to deal with the refrigeration requirements and possible side effects. But critics also point to politics as the reason behind the government’s decision.
In a letter to the African Export-Import Bank, Zimbabwe’s government explained it was still analyzing possible side effects of the Johnson and Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine. Finance ministry secretary George Guvamatanga also said the country does not have the storage facilities required for the doses.
But in an interview, Dr. Norman Matara from the Zimbabwe Association for Doctors for Human Rights, said Johnson and Johnson vaccines are stored at the same temperatures as China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, which Zimbabwe has been using since February.
“So, we already have those cold chain mechanisms to store vaccines at 2 to 8 degrees (Celsius) which Johnson and Johnson is supposed to be stored. So, it does not make sense to say they do not have cold chain reactions. In addition, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is given as a one-dose. So, the cost of rolling out that vaccine is much less than the Sinopharm and Sinovac and also the logistics of one dose is much better than the two-dose provided by the Sinopharm (and Sinovac). So, we do not get it why they would reject those vaccines,” Matara said.
The African Union set up the deal, in which the African Export-Import Bank would pay for 220 million doses of COVID vaccines. Zimbabwe was to receive three million doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine that were produced in Britain.
Harare-based political commentator Rejoice Ngwenya said that poor relations between Zimbabwe and Britain are the real reason the Zimbabwean government is rejecting the donation.
“It is a tragedy that the government of Zimbabwe is rejecting the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Why is the Harare-London diplomatic tiff allowed to interfere in a situation where citizens of this country are under threat? I really think that the ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe's ruling party) government should desist from politicizing these issues and get out of its arrogance to ensure the safety and security of citizens of Zimbabwe is safeguarded. I think this is a tragedy and must be reversed with immediate effect,” Ngwenya said.
Relations between London and Harare have been strained since 2002, when Britain imposed travel and financial sanctions on Zimbabwean officials for human rights abuses and alleged election rigging.
On Tuesday, Dr. John Mangwiro, Zimbabwe’s junior health minister, refused to comment on the alleged political motivations, and reiterated that Zimbabwe will continue to use Chinese and Russian vaccines.
"So, we will stick to what we can, are used to, such as Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V. They are stored at temperatures between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius. Plus, once they are injected into a person, their weakened or deactivated viruses in them trigger protective immunity. That’s how we choose which vaccines to use here,” Mangwiro said.
Zimbabwe says it still has stocks of the 1.7 million vaccines it has received from China, Russia and India since February. But for weeks now, most places have run dry of jabs. That triggered a protest last week at the country’s main vaccination center in the capital.