We've been hit by 'setbacks', Ramaphosa concedes over SA's vaccine rollout

President Cyril Ramaphosa says evidence among health workers showed that 'vaccines work', and SA is ready to ramp up the rollout once more doses are available

15 June 2021 - 21:41
By amanda khoza AND Amanda Khoza
President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted that there were multiple 'setbacks' in the vaccine rollout, many of which, he said, were not of the country's own doing. File image.
Image: Alaister Russell/Sunday Times President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted that there were multiple 'setbacks' in the vaccine rollout, many of which, he said, were not of the country's own doing. File image.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has conceded that SA's vaccination rollout is in turmoil — but has promised that it will soon be back on track.

Speaking during a national address on Tuesday night — when he also announced that lockdown restrictions had been tightened — Ramaphosa admitted that there were multiple “setbacks” in the rollout, many of which, he said, were not of the country's own doing.

“Our first setback was that after the arrival of our first batch of vaccines, our scientists discovered that the AstraZeneca vaccine that we had procured from the Serum Institute of India did not provide sufficient protection against the variant that is predominant in SA.

“We have also been adversely affected by shortages in the global supply of vaccines, which has hampered vaccination programmes across Africa and in many other low and middle-income countries.

“After the AstraZeneca setback, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appeared to be the best option for our country as it protects against the variant, because it requires only a single dose and is easier to store and transport,” the president said.

But even that was hit by another setback.

The supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccines was held up by an investigation into contamination of ingredients at a supplier factory in Baltimore in the US.

“Until now, our mass vaccination programme has therefore had to rely on the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two doses,” Ramaphosa said.

“Nevertheless, 480,000 health workers have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to date as part of phase 1 of the programme. As part of phase 2, a further 1.5 million health workers and people over the age of 60 have received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. This brings the total number of people who have received a vaccine dose to almost two million.

“The pace of vaccinations has steadily picked up, and we are now vaccinating about 80,000 people a day at more than 570 sites in the public and private sector. This number will grow rapidly in the weeks to come, as we aim to protect as many vulnerable people as possible. The problems with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have now been resolved,” he added.

As a result of these problems, two million J&J doses that had already been produced are unusable. But this, too, said Ramaphosa, was being resolved.

“The Aspen plant in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape is now able to go ahead and produce new doses. The company has committed to significantly ramp up production and begin supplying the country within the next few days.

“We have to date received nearly 2.4 million Pfizer vaccine doses. By the end of June, we expect to have received a total of 3.1 million Pfizer doses. We have received an indication from Johnson & Johnson that it expects to deliver about two million vaccines to SA by the end of the month.

“The initial doses we receive from Johnson & Johnson will be used to vaccinate educators in our schools and thereafter security personnel on the front line. Now that the delays in the supply of vaccines are largely resolved, our immediate task is to complete the vaccination of all those over 60 years of age without delay,” he said.

Ramaphosa said there was now capacity to vaccinate 150,000 people a day, and ramping this up to 200,000 people a day “as soon as possible”.

“I therefore call on every person in this country over the age of 60 to register — whether online, by SMS, by phone or in person — and get vaccinated without delay. I call on everyone else, if you know someone over 60 years of age who has not been vaccinated, please help them to register and get vaccinated,” he said.

There was some good news on the vaccine front, however, with Ramaphosa saying that the number of health workers who had been infected during the third wave was significantly lower than at the same point of the second wave at the turn of the year.

“As we see the rate of infection rise across the country, there is one statistic that provides a clear reason for hope. At a similar point in the rise of the second wave of infections in early December last year, there were 640 healthcare workers infected by Covid-19 over a seven day period. In the last seven days, only 64 healthcare workers have been infected.

“While it must be our unwavering determination to ensure that no healthcare workers are infected, this is a significant reduction in infections, which can be attributed to the success of the first phase of our vaccination programme.

“This is evidence that vaccines work. It must motivate us to accelerate the rollout of vaccines and to ensure that all people who are eligible register and receive the vaccine,” he said.