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Malawi Facing COVID Vaccine Shortage after Burning Expired Doses

COVID-19 vaccines arrive to be destroyed, in Lilongwe, Malawi, May 19, 2021.
COVID-19 vaccines arrive to be destroyed, in Lilongwe, Malawi, May 19, 2021.

Malawi authorities say the country is quickly running out of coronavirus vaccines as confirmed infections surge to nearly 35,000 and 1,200 deaths in a third wave of the pandemic. The shortage comes just weeks after Malawi destroyed about 20,000 doses that expired, partly due to vaccine hesitancy.

Malawi health authorities said Friday they’ve shut down more than half the country’s vaccination centers because of shortages and that many people were turned way.

In the commercial capital Blantyre, all the vaccination centers are closed.

Dr. Charles Mwansambo is Malawi’s Secretary for Health.

"Malawi received a total of 512,000 doses; 360,000 were from the COVAX facility, 102,000 were from the AU [African Union] and 50,000 doses were from the Indian government," Mwansambo said. "And as we are talking now, more that 93% of those doses have been used.”

The vaccine shortage comes just a month after Malawi destroyed nearly 20,000 doses that had expired in April - partly because of vaccine hesitancy.

Mwansambo says authorities were forced to incinerate the doses to reassure Malawians that vaccines being used were effective.

"The burning was of course regrettable, but we got those doses very late, they only had a very short shelf life," Mwansambo said. "In fact, I am happy that we did that because we got back the confidence from the people. That’s why we are seeing what we are seeing now.”

Malawi plans to vaccinate about 11 million of its 18 million people to achieve herd immunity.

But only about 400,000 Malawians have been inoculated so far.

Malawi is expecting a donation of 900,000 doses from the COVAX facility by the end of July.

Some Malawians who got their first dose in March worry about their immunity being compromised as they were supposed to get the second jab after 12 weeks.

But medical experts dismiss those fears.

Dr. Gift Kawalazila is the director of Health and Social Services at Blantyre District Health Office.

"The evidence that we have is that actually the longer you delay the (second dose of the) vaccine the more effective it becomes," Kawalazila said. "So, 12 weeks, was just a guide. But the idea was that if you take it after 12 weeks that’s when actually it gets better with your immunity.”

But Mwansambo worries the waiting time could deter people from getting the jab and is calling on donors to step in to bridge the gap.

"So, this break will kill the momentum," Mwansambo said. "I hope it’s not too long a break. That’s why we call upon other willing, and I know that a number of well-wishers out there, including the US government, the UK government, are ready to give out the extra doses they have.”

Malawi’s parliament called on the government Thursday to set aside funds to purchase vaccines, so they are not dependent on donations.

While Malawi is one of Africa’s poorest nations, Health Secretary Mwansambo says the issue is not money but where to get the vaccine.

He noted India, which produces the AstraZeneca vaccine that does not require cold storage, has stopped exports to deal with its own surge with tens of thousands of daily, new infections.