Health minister Zweli Mkhize lets slip Covid-19 vaccine surprise

31 January 2021 - 00:04
Responding to concerns over the storage of the vaccine, which must be kept at -70ºC, Mkhize said this should not be a problem.
Responding to concerns over the storage of the vaccine, which must be kept at -70ºC, Mkhize said this should not be a problem.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

SA has secured another 20-million doses of Covid-19 vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, taking the total on order to more than 42-million.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize told the Sunday Times on Friday: "These vaccines are secured and awaiting manufacturers to submit final agreements with details of delivery dates and exact amounts."

This is the government's single biggest order to date. It earlier secured 9-million doses from Johnson & Johnson, 12-million from Covax and 1.5-million from AstraZeneca through the Serum Institute of India (SII).

The first batch - 1-million doses from SII - is due to arrive at OR Tambo International Airport tomorrow. These will be used to vaccinate public and private health-care workers. The first vaccination is due to take place within 10-14 days, after the consignment has been checked and cleared.

Further vaccine orders would be announced once details had been finalised, Mkhize said.

"We are negotiating, largely with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, but some of it is coming via the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team and Covax.

We are negotiating, largely with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, but some of it is coming via the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team and Covax

"We are reasonably comfortable that what we have paid for, signed for and are negotiating for will cover the numbers that we are looking to vaccinate," the minister said.

More good news is that a study by Pfizer has found that the company's vaccine, developed with BioNTech, appeared to be relatively effective against the Covid variant that has emerged in SA.

A study by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas, conducted on an engineered virus with three mutations from the variant, found the vaccine was only slightly less effective against the variant compared with the first form of the virus.

Responding to concerns over the storage of the vaccine, which must be kept at -70ºC, Mkhize said this should not be a problem. "We have some capacity, mostly in academic institutions. There are now companies coming forward with storage and transit solutions and we will advertise for bids for tenders on February 5."

He said that despite the rush to begin vaccinating, "we will not compromise safety … we will have to give it time. Every batch will go through exactly the same approach, that is the most important step here."

The minister said more vaccine deliveries were expected next month.

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"The aim is to be able to give them [health-care workers] a second dose and complete phase 1. We expect there will be vaccines left to go on to the second phase; according to our original plan, February and March is for the first phase, then to take six months to complete the second phase."

He said the second phase of the rollout would start earlier than planned and distribution would be improved so that both phases can overlap.

Mkhize said some of the country's leaders could be among the first in line for the jab, jumping the queue to publicly demonstrate their confidence that the Covid vaccine is safe.

Mkhize said building confidence around the vaccine was key.

"There are views that leaders must be in the forefront of receiving the vaccine to give confidence; there are other views that say everyone must wait their turn because we have one rule for everyone.

"We believe that it is important to bring about confidence so some members might need to be vaccinated in the leadership, it does not have to be all. As to which ones, I am not able to say at this time but some will need to be vaccinated to bring confidence."

There has been much disinformation surrounding Covid and the vaccines. An ANC councillor in eThekwini landed in hot water last month for suggesting the disease does not exist - although he also claimed white people have already been vaccinated - and that 5G cellphone towers are killing people. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng stirred controversy with a prayer against any "vaccine of the devil" in December.

Once the SII vaccines have landed tomorrow, they will be taken into stock by Biovac, a bio-pharmaceutical company that was formed in partnership with the government in 2003 to establish a local vaccine manufacturing capability.

"It will then be distributed for the public sector facilities that are on Biovac's books," said Stavros Nicolaou, chair of Business for SA's health working group.

Biovac would use its own logistics capability, possibly in combination with established operators such as Imperial or United Pharmaceutical Distributors.

Mkhize has said that after the checking process of up to two weeks, "we will be ready to distribute to all provinces".

Nicolaou said vaccines destined for the private sector will be stored in private warehouses for distribution to GPs and private hospitals, pharmacies and clinics as well as to vaccination centres and wholesalers and distributors.

Western Cape health department head Dr Keith Cloete said the vaccination of health-care workers in the province was expected to start as early as February 8.

He said more than 400 vaccination sites had already been identified.

- Additional reporting by Paul Ash and Sipokazi Fokazi


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