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An elderly patient receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at Orange Farm, near Johannesburg, on June 3, 2021.Denis Farrell/The Associated Press

The Toronto-based Mastercard Foundation says it will spend US$1.3-billion to revive the faltering vaccine effort in Africa, saying there is a “moral imperative” to respond to the mounting inequities that have left poorer countries slipping far behind the rich.

The foundation, Canada’s biggest charity with more than US$39-billion in assets, says it is making the donation to acquire COVID-19 vaccines for 50 million Africans and to take other steps to tackle the growing vaccine crisis in Africa.

Less than 2 per cent of Africans have received any vaccine so far, while a growing number of wealthy countries – including Canada – have provided at least one dose to more than half of their populations.

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The donation by the Mastercard Foundation over the next three years is aimed at acquiring vaccines for 50 million people in Africa, boosting the delivery of millions of additional vaccines by improving distribution and reducing vaccine hesitancy, training workers for a planned vaccine manufacturing sector in Africa, and strengthening the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The foundation, set up in Toronto in 2006 when Mastercard went public on the New York Stock Exchange, has increasingly focused on African programs in recent years, setting up offices across Africa, spending more than US$4-billion on Africa programs and relocating its president to Rwanda.

The main vaccine program for lower-income countries, the non-profit COVAX initiative, has relied heavily on AstraZeneca doses from a factory in India – but the factory says it must focus on deliveries to India for the rest of this year, creating a projected shortfall of 190 million doses by the end of this month. A dozen higher-income countries are trying to ease the shortage by sharing doses with COVAX, but Canada has made no decision on dose-sharing so far.

The COVAX problems are just the latest challenge for Africa, where supply shortages have jeopardized the African Union’s goal of vaccinating 60 per cent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people by the end of next year. And many African countries are now facing a third wave of the pandemic, with a surge of new cases and deaths in recent days.

“Addressing this inequity is a moral imperative,” said Reeta Roy, president and chief executive of the Mastercard Foundation, as she announced the donation at an online event with African leaders on Tuesday.

“Ensuring equitable access and delivery of vaccines across Africa is urgent,” she said.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said the foundation’s donation is a “game changer” for the continent’s fight against the pandemic.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame said the donation was “practical and immediate” and will save lives.

South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize called the announcement “a vital shot in the arm” for Africa. While many Western pharmaceutical companies have conducted trials of their vaccines in African countries, the continent is still “last in the queue” for COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

“This is unjust and contrary to human rights,” Mr. Mkhize said. “This is an unsustainable situation.”

Despite the Mastercard Foundation’s donation, Africa still faces huge challenges in obtaining vaccines. In addition to the COVAX shortfall, the African Union also faces delays in its own procurement plan. It has ordered 220 million vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, but the delivery has been stalled by the shutdown of a U.S. factory since April.

The factory in Baltimore, which had accidentally contaminated millions of vaccine doses, supplies ingredients for other Johnson & Johnson factories worldwide – including one in South Africa. Deliveries cannot resume until U.S. inspectors have given their full approval.

Dr. Nkengasong said he is hoping for the approval to be given this week. But even then, the first deliveries to Africa are unlikely to begin until August, he said. Some of the 220 million doses will not be delivered until next year.

Health advocates said the Mastercard Foundation’s donation is welcome, but insufficient. They are calling for a temporary waiver of vaccine patents to allow a massive increase in global production.

“Philanthropy cannot be a substitute for vaccine equity,” said Fatima Hassan, a South African activist and member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance campaign.

“We need billions of vaccines, not millions,” she told The Globe and Mail. “We need more manufacturing licensing and capacity. Governments need to prioritize and invest for future production. We are getting 99 per cent of our vaccines from outside Africa.”

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