The African Union (AU) on Thursday, began the delivery of some 220 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to member states, with the potential to distribute an additional 180 million doses in the future.
The rollout of the initiative was announced by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also the AU COVID-19 Champion.
It is expected to bolster the continent's mass inoculation campaign which has lagged behind other regions so far.
"By working together and by pooling resources, African countries have been able to secure millions of vaccine doses produced right here in Africa. This will provide impetus to the fight against COVID-19 across the continent and will lay the basis for Africa's social and economic recovery," said Ramaphosa.
The vaccine distribution follows an agreement struck by AU member countries in March 2021 for the purchase of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The vaccine was selected because it is a single-shot regime, which makes it easier and cheaper to administer. It is also said to have a longer shelf life and is more suitable for storage in Africa's conditions. In addition, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is partly manufactured on the African continent, with fill-finish activities taking place in South Africa.
Some 6.4 million doses are expected to be shipped in August. Monthly shipments will continue and be continually ramped up, with a target of delivering about 50 million vaccines by the end of December.
Africa continues to lag behind other regions in COVID-19 vaccinations. So far, only around 1.1 percent of the continent's population has received at least one dose of the life-saving jabs.
Experts are concerned that the highly contagious Delta variant could worsen the situation on the continent and overwhelm health systems.
The Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), Dr John Nkengasong expressed optimism that the vaccine shipments would help the continent counter the spread of the virus.
"During the last months, we have seen the vaccination gap between Africa and other parts of the world widen, and a devastating third wave hit our continent. The deliveries starting now will help us get to the vaccination levels necessary to protect African lives and livelihoods," he said.