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Malawi Expands Eligibility for COVID Vaccine as Doses Near Expiration

FILE - People wait to receive the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at Ndirande Health Centre in Blantyre, Malawi, March 29, 2021.

Malawi's Ministry of Health expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to all Malawians 18 and older. The decision was prompted by the approaching expiration date for about 40,000 doses the country received from the African Union.

Malawi's government has so far received 512,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which it is administering to the public.

The first batch of 360,000 doses came in early March under the COVAX program. A few weeks later, Malawi received other allotments of 50,000 doses from India and 102,000 doses from the African Union.

Joshua Malango, the spokesperson for Malawi's Ministry of Health, said 40,000 of the African Union doses expire Tuesday, while the other vaccine expires in July. He believes there is still time to distribute the AU doses before they become unusable.

"We have four days to go," he said. "We still have tomorrow, we still have Sunday, and Monday."

In a televised situation update Wednesday, the Ministry of Health said all Malawians 18 and older are now eligible to be vaccinated.

Critics have questioned why Malawi accepted doses with such a short shelf life. However, government officials said they did not anticipate the drugs would be unused given the huge turnout of people during the early days of the vaccination process.

Dr. Mike Chisema, a manager for the expanded immunization program, said the ministry also started deploying medical workers to encourage vaccinations.

"The aim is to be near those who would want to receive the vaccine," he said. "We don't want people to travel long distances to seek vaccination. This will also help people with disabilities to access the vaccine without difficulties."

The ministry said this week that out of its 512,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, it has used only 164,000, mostly in urban areas. Health care activists blame the low rate on a lack of civic education about the vaccine, especially in rural areas.