Zweli Mkhize confident SA will achieve Covid-19 herd immunity ‘within a year’

Health minister says government believes it will achieve target of vaccinating about 250,000 to 270,000 citizens a day

08 April 2021 - 18:38 By nonkululeko njilo
It'll take a year for SA to reach Covid-19 population immunity, and age will be the central criterion for who gets the vaccination and when, according to health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.
MORE THAN JUST A NUMBER It'll take a year for SA to reach Covid-19 population immunity, and age will be the central criterion for who gets the vaccination and when, according to health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi/Sunday Times

It’ll take a year for SA to reach Covid-19 population immunity – and age will be a central factor in deciding who gets the vaccination and when.

This is according to health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, who was addressing the media in Soweto on Thursday. 

He said lessons learnt from the current vaccine rollout – under the “Sisonke Protocol”, which has seen just shy of 280,000 health workers given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as of Wednesday night – determined that age was a key factor. These lessons, he said, meant government would have to make some changes to its vaccine strategy.

“We believe that with these revisions we can achieve the target of vaccinating approximately 250,000 to 270,000 citizens a day at our peak, thus reaching population immunity within the period of a year..

We are pleased that we have put this and the most arduous stages of the deal making process with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson behind us.
Zweli Mkhize

“There are some key findings that necessitated some revisions of the rollout plan. The first of these is that evidence shows that age is the most important factor determining adverse outcomes such as death, hospitalisation and moderate to severe illness. Age alone as a factor surpasses comorbidities, occupational exposure or potential exposure from living in a congregate setting,” he said.

Mkhize was speaking shortly after he, Gauteng premier David Makhura and health MEC Nomathemba Mokgethi visited three vaccination centres on Thursday, including the Charlotte Maxeke hospital to assess the readiness for the second phase of the vaccination programme. 

Mkhize said he was “happy” with all three facilities, particularly the electronic data system he personally tested by putting in his credentials and immediately being able to detect he had already been vaccinated.

The second phase of the rollout plan is expected to commence on May 17 and run until October 17. 

“That six-month period will focus largely on people who are most vulnerable. We’ve indicated the age issue, people with comorbidities, people on the frontline. That will take us six months. That’s because we will be opening some of the vaccination sites consequently and we will also be looking at the flow of vaccines,” he said.

Mkhize revealed SA had made significant strides in the procurement of the vaccines. He announced that more than a million additional doses had been secured.

“We are, therefore, pleased that we have put this and the most arduous stages of the deal making process with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson behind us and that we have now secured a combined 51 million doses of vaccines – 31 million from J&J’s one-dose vaccine and 20 million from Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine,” he said.

Of the 51 million vaccines, SA would receive 1,099,200 J&J doses this month. The exact date of delivery was yet to be determined, with quality assurance processes being completed, according to Mkhize.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and Gauteng premier David Makhura visit the Charlotte Maxeke hospital on Thursday to assess the state of readiness for the second phase of the vaccination programme.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and Gauteng premier David Makhura visit the Charlotte Maxeke hospital on Thursday to assess the state of readiness for the second phase of the vaccination programme.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi/ Sunday Times

Meanwhile, Pfizer indicated SA could expect delivery 14 days after confirmation of receipt of funds.

“Therefore, we still expect that the first batch of Pfizer vaccines will also arrive this month, and we will announce the quantity of this stock when Pfizer confirms with the expected date of delivery. We are very excited that we are now almost well out of the woods in the procurement of the vaccines,” said Mkhize.

Commenting on who will be given which vaccine, Mkhize said most of the Pfizer vaccines would be used in urban areas and densely populated settings within a shorter distance. That was so that people could go through vaccination centres and nothing would affect the quality of the vaccines.

He added the government would not be able to execute the programme on its own, saying all hands had to be on deck. 

“If we all continue to work together as we have done in preparation for the mass vaccination campaign, I can assure you we will get a glorious glimpse of what the future of healthcare in this country will look like,” he said.

There was also some good news on the vaccination front from a financial perspective on Thursday.

The Brics New Development Bank had approved a second $1bn (R14.5bn) loan to SA’s government to fight the pandemic, the bank said on Thursday.

SA’s public finances were in bad shape before Covid-19 struck and have deteriorated since. The country has recorded the most coronavirus cases on the continent and imposed a strict lockdown that shuttered much of its economy.

“The loan will support the government of SA in its efforts to contain the economic fallout of the pandemic and start economic recovery,” the bank said in a statement.

Last year, the NDB provided SA with a $1bn loan to cushion the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.

The 2021 budget presented in February forecast a record deficit of 14% of GDP in the fiscal year ending March.

Brics member states Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA set up the NDB to mobilise funds for infrastructure and development projects in their own countries and other developing nations.

Also on Thursday, News24 reported the US government would be contributing R45m from its Right to Care programme for the government’s Covid-19 fight.

Meanwhile, the AU said it had dropped plans to secure Covid-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute of India for African nations and was exploring options with J&J. This is according to the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The institute will still supply the AstraZeneca vaccine to Africa through the Covax vaccine-sharing facility, John Nkengasong told reporters, but the AU would seek additional supplies from J&J.

The statement came the day after EU and British medicine regulators said they had found possible links between AstraZeneca’s vaccine and reports of very rare cases of brain blood clots, but they reaffirmed its importance in protecting people.

Nkengasong said the possible link had nothing to do with the AU’s decision. The bloc of 55 member states shifted its efforts to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he said, citing the deal signed last week to secure up to 400 million doses beginning in the third quarter of this year.

“It was just a clear understanding of how not to duplicate efforts with the Serum Institute, so that we compliment each other rather than duplicate efforts,” he said.

– Additional reporting by Reuters

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