SA was right to choose Covax rather than one vaccine supplier, says health DDG

31 December 2020 - 13:51 By ernest mabuza
National health department deputy director-general Dr Anban Pillay says SA will know in early January when it will receive its share of Covid-19 vaccines.
National health department deputy director-general Dr Anban Pillay says SA will know in early January when it will receive its share of Covid-19 vaccines.
Image: Supplied

SA has not delayed the procurement of the Covid-19 vaccine, deciding to acquire it in a manner that would not put the country at financial risk.

Deputy director-general of the department of health Dr Anban Pillay said this on SABC's Morning Live on Thursday morning when discussing SA’s vaccine strategy.

Pillay was responding to a question from a viewer who asked how the government can ethically justify lives lost due to government's “delay” in procuring and distributing a vaccine.

“We have not delayed the procurement at all. We took a decision at the time we will go to Covax facility because Covax was purchasing vaccine from multiple vaccine producers, rather than taking the risk and going with one vaccine supplier,” Pillay said.

SA is part of the global pooled procurement initiative co-ordinated by Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, commonly known as Covax.

SA has made the initial R283m payment to the organisation and on Monday President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country is part of the first group of countries that will receive an allocation of vaccines from Covax.

“We have been advised that we should expect the vaccines in the second quarter of 2021,” Ramaphosa said.

Pillay said Covax has not mentioned when exactly the vaccine will be delivered to SA.

We can flatten the curve immediately.
Dr Anban Pillay

“Covax said we must expect delivery at quarter two. They are trying very hard to get us delivery before that. If they succeed with the manufacturers, we may get the delivery earlier,” Pillay said.

Covax, he said, has indicated to SA that in early January it will have a firm date, adding that the record 17,710 Covid-19 infections recorded on Wednesday evening was worrying.

“We had anticipated this might happen. People do not adhere on non-pharmaceutical interventions, particularly mask-wearing and social distancing. Hence we have to come up with restrictions to limit the numbers.”

Pillay said South Africans still had capacity to make a stand by wearing masks, social distancing and not participating in gatherings that may contribute to transmission of the virus.

“We can flatten the curve immediately.”

Poor countries 'always left behind'

Another panel member, senior researcher at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Dr Safura Abdool Karim disputed that SA receiving the vaccine later than other countries was a result of poor planning on the part of the country.

“The reason SA is not able to access the vaccine the way the US and UK can is because we are not a wealthy country. This is systemic and global. Poor countries are always left behind when it comes to heath interventions,” Abdool Karim said.

The US, the UK and many other wealthy countries were able to pour billions of taxpayer dollars to vaccines, some of which would not work, she said.

Another member of the public argued that SA could order unregistered vaccines and take delivery of them when they were registered, but Pillay said this was incorrect.

“Companies made it clear that if you want to buy vaccines you need to get into agreement, which includes prepayment on a risk basis in order for you to participate in the first allocation,” he said.

“The risk basis means 'I put money into this machine and the machine did not give me a jackpot and I am sorry the money is lost.' That is the risk we were not keen on taking.

This arrangement did not only apply to Covid-19 vaccines, said Abdool Karim.

“If a country is committing a certain amount of money to fund the development of an intervention, they lose that money if the intervention does not pan out.

Prof Barry Schoub, chairperson of the ministerial advisory committee on coronavirus vaccine development, said there were side-effects presented by these vaccines but they were usually minor.

“There may be a little tenderness of the arm. This is usually trivial,” he said, adding that there had been one or two reports of allergic reactions to some of the constituent stabilisers in the vaccines.