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BRUSSELS -The European Commission said on Thursday it had reached a temporary agreement with South Africa to use a plant there to bottle Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines that are being imported into the EU, after criticism of the arrangement.
On Wednesday, the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was "stunned" to hear that J&J vaccines were being exported from South Africa to the EU, because the bloc has very high vaccination rates while even the most vulnerable people in many African countries have not been vaccinated.
A spokesperson for the European Commission told reporters on Thursday the agreement with South Africa was reached after J&J faced problems in producing vaccines in the United States at a factory belonging to its partner Emergent Biosolutions.
The deal highlights the complexity of producing vaccines from factories spread across the world and drugmakers' power in negotiating supply deals with countries.
The arrangement means South African drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare bottles the vaccine produced elsewhere, mostly in Europe, and then transfers the finished doses to South Africa and the EU.
A J&J factory in Leiden, in the Netherlands, is a major producer of the vaccine substance for COVID-19 shots worldwide, and J&J will transfer all bottling operations from South Africa to Leiden from the end of September, the EU spokesperson said.
J&J had no immediate comment on its bottling operations and the number of doses to be transferred from Aspen to the EU.
South Africa's exports of vaccines to the EU were reported by the New York Times on Monday, confirming earlier public statements from South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa and Aspen.
The newspaper cited a confidential contract between J&J and South Africa's government and said the deal prevented the country, against its will, from imposing restrictions on vaccine exports.
Under its contract with the EU, J&J had also negotiated a complex supply chain that involved U.S.-based firms despite opposition from EU countries, EU internal documents seen by Reuters show.
Aspen is also bottling J&J vaccine for South Africa, although officials in the country warned earlier this month that deliveries from the U.S. drugmaker had so far been slow.
CLOSING THE CIRCLE?
On Thursday, the WHO softened its remarks on South Africa's enforced exports of J&J shots. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa, told a news conference the arrangement was "presumably" part of the investment in the development and production of vaccines in Africa.
The EU is leading global investments to create vaccine "hubs" in Africa, including South Africa and Senegal, to increase the continent's ability to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines.
Aspen's plant does not appear to be among the manufacturing sites approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for J&J vaccines.