Covid-19 pandemic

SA's vaccination rollout: Tortoise vs hares in race to Covid-19 jab

04 April 2021 - 00:00 By graeme hosken
Our World in Data analysis shows the vaccination rate in SA lags far behind those in countries of equal or lower economic standing.
Our World in Data analysis shows the vaccination rate in SA lags far behind those in countries of equal or lower economic standing.
Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

Criticism of the snail’s pace at which SA is rolling out Covid-19 vaccinations compared with its economic peers is unfair and misplaced, leading health economists and academics say.

Analysis by Our World in Data shows the vaccination rate in SA lags far behind those in countries of equal or lower economic standing.

By Tuesday, SA — where the only vaccines administered so far have been in clinical and implementation trials — had vaccinated only 0.42% (262,000) of its citizens. At the moment, only heath workers are getting shots.

By comparison Israel, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Morocco, Mexico, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Malawi are streets ahead. Israel leads the world in terms of the number of citizens vaccinated, with more than 60% of its population in non-occupied territories inoculated, followed by Chile at 34%.

Health economist Paula Armstrong, director of FTI Consulting, blamed SA’s late arrival in the procurement queue. “In December, when vast numbers of countries were vaccinating their population, we had done nothing,” she said.

However, SA had also suffered a setback when it was found that the AstraZeneca vaccine was less effective against the new variant of the virus that emerged locally.

“The AstraZeneca discovery was made because of the excellent scientists South Africa has working on the ground conducting a litany of tests,” said Armstrong.

“We were and are getting information other countries are not. While we are testing and retesting, some of our peers are simply proceeding with rollouts,” she said.

“While the decision not to roll out AstraZeneca is a big blow, and puts us far behind our peers, it would be unfair to do a comparison. South Africa, unlike some other countries, is not rushing for the first available vaccine. Countries like Chile and the United Arab Emirates are rolling out vaccines such as the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, which has not yet completed its trial phase or been properly tested for safety.”

Armstrong said the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority took safety a lot more seriously than other countries. “Until trials are completed and there was sufficient available data on a vaccine, the medications will not be made available.”

Health economist professor Alex van den Heever, who has been critical of the government’s vaccine strategy, said South Africa was falling behind in the vaccine race “largely because of government incompetence”.

“But when comparing us to our peers, we need to look at the different strategies. It comes down to a question of do you wait for the perfect vaccine, or vaccinate with any vaccine that you can get hold of as quickly as possible, just like Chile, Mexico and Colombia have done?”

Van den Heever said it came down to how governments implemented their strategies. “Waiting for the perfect vaccine is a particular type of strategy, but it leaves a population exposed for long periods.

“The South African government’s first problem was that it dithered for too long. This forced us to change rollout strategies when the new variant emerged,” he said.


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