Despite delays, leaders adamant that SA's vaccine programme is on track
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said negotiations on vaccine procurement were 'complete', with signing of the agreements taking place in the next 48 hours
While there may be delays in the rollout of the country's vaccination programme, health minister Zweli Mkhize on Tuesday assured South Africans that the government's plans were on track.
“We can confirm that negotiations on vaccine procurement are complete, and signing will be taking place in next 48 hours. We also assure South Africans that our working relationships with manufacturers are strengthened by continuous engagement which began as early as June in 2020,” said Mkhize.
He was updating the parliament's portfolio committee on health on the Johnson & Johnson clinical trials, vaccine procurement and progress on the country's vaccination programme.
Mkhize said his department was committed to its plans to vaccinate the entire adult population over a year, kicking off on February 17 2021.
“We committed to rolling out vaccines from mid-February through a phased programme which would see front-line health-care workers being vaccinated in the first three months, high risk groups vaccinated in the ensuing six months and then healthy adults in the remaining three months,” he told the committee.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and his deputy, David Mabuza, visited Aspen Pharmacare's Gqeberha factory on March 29 2021. A newly signed deal was announced during the president's tour that will see 30 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines being produced in South Africa in 2021.
Mkhize said while SA did not have the financial muscle to “engage in unhedged bets”, the country did have the “scientific fortitude” to track the research & development of the respective vaccine candidates — “and began to engage as soon as there was clarity on safety and efficacy of a particular vaccine, even before the vaccine may have obtained emergency use authorisation”.
In addition to the 11 million Covid-19 vaccine doses that SA had secured from J&J, Mkhize said the government had successfully pushed for a further 20 million doses. It was now negotiating the terms for those additional doses.
Mkhhize said this meant that SA now had 31 million doses of J&J vaccines “in the pipeline”.
“Due to the ease of storage and the fact that it is a one-dose regimen, we aim to deploy J&J preferentially to rural areas and population groups, such as the very elderly, who may have difficulty returning for a second dose.
“The first batch of market J&J vaccines for South African citizens have been ready since March and are undergoing compulsory safety and sterility checks, as it is stipulated that the vaccines must be distributed after one month of production,” he said.
He said the proximity of J&J’s manufacturing plant in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) “has proven to be of strategic importance and laid the foundation for advancement and establishment of local intellectual property and expansion of manufacturing capability”.
Mkhize said: “In addition to the 31 million doses from J&J, we have signed a term sheet with Pfizer for 20 million doses, signed an agreement with Covax for 12 million doses and participate in the AU initiative. Regarding Covax, at this stage they can offer only AstraZeneca and Novavax, of which we have advised that, as per the advice of the ministerial advisory committee on vaccines, these candidates are now not suitable for our setting.”
He said the government believed that there were attainable alternatives which made it unnecessary to have to use Novavax or AstraZeneca.
He added that health director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi had been directed to complete the negotiations around Sputnik, Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines and report back urgently.
“The respective applications to the South African Health Products Regulatory Association (SAHPRA) are now being considered on a rolling basis,” said Mkhize, adding that the country would continue to monitor the progress on the Cuban candidate, Soberena, and would be engaging with the Cuban ambassador on the matter.
“We are happy with the progress of the Sisonke Protocol and are expecting the remaining 200,000 J&J protocol vaccines to arrive on schedule in the next two weeks. We are very appreciative of the support from J&J which went all out to collect these protocol doses from various locations worldwide,” Mkhize said.
Mkhize said SA was now in advanced stages of preparing for the mass vaccination programme, which targeted vaccinating 200,000 citizens per day.
He said he would “in the next few days” be unveiling a concrete monthly vaccine delivery schedule, which was being finalised.
“I have directed that the DG [director-general] urgently meets with the private sector to agree on the allocation of vaccines between private and public sector sites and revise daily and weekly vaccination targets based on firm commitments on vaccine delivery.
“History will judge us not on our ability to debate the matter out, but how we contributed — that is what we actually did — to ensure that our people are protected and our economy is saved,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said the global scientific community, including the World Health Organisation, has warned every country that the response to Covid-19 remained multipronged until population immunity was scientifically demonstrated.
With the vaccination programme gaining momentum, Mkhize warned citizens they needed to continue to adhere to basic Covid-19 health protocols.
“At this stage positive cases have reduced but the risk of super-spreader activities may just turn the tide and hasten the third wave. We, therefore, all need to be cautious.”
Mkhize said President Cyril Ramaophosa on Tuesday evening will issue guidelines about what provisions South Africans will need to observe during the Easter holidays.
“Beyond Easter, winter will make SA more vulnerable for high transmission. But we have conquered this virus before — through adherence to the regulations and observing basic health protocols, especially the wearing of masks,” said Mkhize.
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would remain on alert level 1 but will endure some alcohol restrictions during the Easter long weekend. During an address on March 30 2021, Ramaphosa also updated the nation on the vaccine rollout, saying the second phase of vaccinations would begin in May 2021.