Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced yesterday the country will donate 1 million AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine doses to African countries through the international COVAX mechanism. Israel had signed on as supporter of the COVAX partnership about a year ago, but so far did not participate actively in donating vaccine doses through this specific mechanism.
In its announcement, the Foreign Ministry noted that in recent months, Israel has strengthened its relations with African countries, including Israel’s return last July to observer status in the African Union (AU). The significant donation of vaccines, which will reach close to a quarter of the continent's countries, will contribute to strengthening ties between Israel and these countries, said the announcement.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted, "In the coming weeks, Israel will send 1 million AstraZeneca vaccines to African countries through COVAX, the international mechanism for the equitable distribution of vaccines. I’m happy that Israel can contribute and be a partner in eradicating this pandemic from the world."
The global vaccine distribution mechanism COVAX, centered in Geneva, works for the procurement and equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines, serving as a humanitarian buffer. It aims at ensuring access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, focusing on developing countries and on vulnerable populations. Its main executive partners are the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization and the World Health Organization, with some 90 countries supporting the initiative.
Participating countries donate vaccine doses to a bank-like mechanism, which then distributes the doses to needy countries and populations. Israel, for instance, will donate 1 million doses it had already purchased from AstraZeneca. Instead of the doses being shipped to Israel, the already-paid-for vaccines will reach African countries.
The announcement of the Foreign Ministry did not specify which countries will receive the doses, though Israel has apparently compiled a specific list of African countries with the structural capabilities of distributing and administrating the vaccines.
As a reminder, while serving as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu announced last February he was planning to give some COVID-19 vaccination doses to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to various countries. Shortly after the announcement, after some of the vaccines were already shipped, and after the list of destination countries was published by the media, he had to halt his initiative. Netanyahu came under fire, with claims that the receiving countries were for the most part diplomatic or political allies of the government, and that the list was compiled without proper consultations with the relevant ministries. Thus, the decision needed to be examined by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit before it could be further carried out.
The current Dec. 15 decision was reportedly taken jointly by the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry and the prime minister’s office, and in consultations with the National Security Council and the attorney general's office, guaranteeing a clear and legal procedure for the donation. Haaretz reported that Israel’s agreement with COVAX allows it to determine where the vaccines end up.
That being said, most of the COVAX donating countries do not earmark the doses for specific countries. France signed last August an agreement with the AU and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust to supply 10 million doses through COVAX destined for AU member states. A few other countries apart from Israel had also targeted specific states for donations. The COVAX site offers an interactive map showing where vaccine donations of each country end up, but does not specify whether this follows a specific request by the donating country or is decided by the COVAX partnership experts.
Asked about the issue by Al-Monitor, COVAX did not refer directly to the Israeli decision. It did, however, note that while countries can earmark their donation, the COVAX partnership asks them in its general statement not to do so.
The Joint Statement on Dose Donations of COVID-19 Vaccines to African Countries states, "Doses should be unearmarked for greatest effectiveness and to support long-term planning. Earmarking makes it far more difficult to allocate supply based on equity, and to account for specific countries’ absorptive capacity."
Israel was one of the first countries to start vaccinating its population. Having signed procurement agreements with several vaccine suppliers, it ended up using almost exclusively the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Reports said Israel had tried unsuccessfully to cancel some of the purchase deals. Only last October did Israel make AstraZeneca vaccines available to people unable for medical reasons to take shots based on mRNA technology.
Last March, Israel launched a campaign for vaccinating some 120,000 Palestinian laborers working on its territory and in West Bank settlements. In June, it was published that Israel plans to transfer some 1 million Pfizer coronavirus vaccine doses to the Palestinians, but the initiative fell through when the PA rejected the offer. In recent months, the PA received vaccine donations from Russia and also received vaccines through the COVAX mechanism.
Vaccine doses aside, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel has supplied numerous countries with necessary medical equipment to cope with the spread of the virus. On Dec. 14, for instance, Israel’s Ambassador to Bulgaria Yoram Elron supervised the transfer of almost 2 tons of medical equipment donated to one of Sofia’s main hospitals. The donation, sent by the Foreign Ministry’s international cooperation department MASHAV, included among other things life-saving oxygen concentrators. Last May, Israel sent to India a large shipment of medical equipment to fight the surging pandemic, including oxygen generators and respirators.