Congo begins COVID-19 vaccinations after delay over safety concerns

FILE PHOTO: A Congolese man buys groceries at an open air market, amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Kinshasa
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KINSHASA (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo launched its COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Monday after a more than one-month delay because of concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine's safety.

Congo received 1.7 million doses from the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility on March 2, but delayed the rollout after several European countries suspended use of the AstraZeneca shot in response to reports of rare blood clots.

Congo's government said last week that a task force had determined the vaccine presented no risk to the population.

The health minister, health workers, diplomats and members of other priority groups were the first to be vaccinated in the capital Kinshasa on Monday, COVAX said in a statement.

Vaccinations would continue in five other provinces with high case rates, including the mining hubs of Lualaba and Haut-Katanga, it said.

"It is an important moment to launch, with complete confidence, the vaccination campaign against COVID-19 in our country today," said Health Minister Eteni Longondo.

But the delay could continue to hamper vaccination efforts. A source familiar with the rollout said the government was considering re-exporting up to 1 million doses if it is not able to administer them before they expire on June 27.

Logondo told Reuters he was confident that all 1.7 million doses could be administered in time. He said Congo would also receive more than 4 million additional doses in the coming weeks.

Congo has reported 28,956 infections and 745 coronavirus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

COVAX, which is backed by the World Health Organization, aims to deliver 600 million shots - most of them from AstraZeneca - to some 40 African countries this year. That would be enough to vaccinate 20% of their populations.

(Reporting by Hereward Holland; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alex Richardson)