SA tries to give away millions of Covid-19 doses to save them from scrapheap

23m doses were still available at end of April amid poor uptake

08 May 2022 - 00:00
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Excess stock of Covid-19 vaccines will be donated or destroyed, says minister of health Joe Phaahla.
Excess stock of Covid-19 vaccines will be donated or destroyed, says minister of health Joe Phaahla.
Image: Bloomberg

Demand for Covid jabs has slumped so dramatically that the health department has stopped ordering fresh supplies, is trying to give away its stockpile and says it will have to destroy millions of doses if there are no takers.

At the end of April, 23-million doses were in stock, health minister Joe Phaahla told the EFF’s Naledi Chirwa in a written parliamentary answer this week. At the current rate of vaccinations — about 40,000 a day — this amounts to 19 months' supply.

Since the mass rollout began with President Cyril Ramaphosa's vaccination at Khayelitsha Hospital in Cape Town on May 17 last year, just over 35-million doses have been administered.

But less than half of the adult population has had a jab, and only 45% are fully vaccinated. About 2.2-million of those aged 12-17 have been inoculated. 

Phaahla's answer coincided with Thursday's total of 9,757 confirmed new infections, the highest in five months.

Health department records on Saturday show that of the 2,552 Covid patients in hospital, almosy two-thirds are unvaccinated. Intensive care units have 241 Covid patients, 104 of whom are unvaccinated.

Vaccination statistics continue to paint a picture of men's reluctance to be jabbed. About 56% of women have been vaccinated compared with 44% of men.

Chirwa asked Phaahla if new doses were being procured, given the low uptake, and what the plan was if the doses went unused. She also asked what the government was doing to try to boost uptake.

The minister's response said the department “is exploring opportunities for donating excess vaccines to other countries. If this is not possible, then excess vaccines that have reached their expiry date will be discarded.

“Given the continuing low uptake of vaccination there is a high risk that a significant number of doses will not be utilised before their expiry date. In light of this, no vaccines are currently being procured.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set the shelf life of the Pfizer vaccine at  nine months if stored at between -60°C and -90°C. Last month, the FDA extended the shelf life of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine to 11 months if stored at 2°C-8°C.

Phaahla said the department is sending out consistent messaging through multiple media channels about the importance of vaccination, and collaborating with community leaders at ward level.

Dialogues and activations were being arranged in communities and the department was providing technical assistance for localised communications that promote uptake, he said.

Efforts were being made among vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations such as the youth, undocumented people and people living with HIV through community engagement strategies.

The poor uptake, however, has persisted, and is reflected by the threatened closure of the Aspen Pharmacare vaccination production line in Gqeberha.

Late in 2020, Aspen made a deal with J&J that it would undertake formulation, filling and secondary packaging of the vaccine at its Eastern Cape plant. The company had no say at the time over where the final products went, and no sway over supplying enough doses for Africa.

But late last year a new deal allowed Aspen to make its own clone of J&J. It was heralded as a new era in which Africa would no longer be relying on Western powers in a context of vaccine inequity.

Aspen's senior executive for strategic trade development, Stavros Nicolaou, said at the time: “In parallel to contract manufacturing, we are gearing up for our own clone of the J&J vaccine. We will be producing an African vaccine for Africa at our facilities.”

The vaccine was named Aspenovax, and the World Health Organisation called it a “transformative moment” because, of all vaccines administered in Africa (not just for Covid), only 1% are produced on the continent.

But Nicolaou said this week that Aspen had received no orders for the vaccine. “If we don't get any kind of vaccine orders, then clearly there'll be very little rationale for retaining the lines that we're now using for production,” he told Reuters.

The rollout of vaccines in Africa has been marred by a combination of factors, including poor access, logistical problems, lack of skilled staff and high hesitancy rates.

According to Reuters, “another issue is that, after initially leaving Africa out in the cold, donor countries have since paid up and the continent is now well supplied”.

Nicolaou said in the long term the aim was to shift to producing other vaccines, but the firm had banked on these initial volumes to buy it time to establish the operation.

“If you don't breach this short-term gap with orders you can't sustain these capacities on the continent,” he said. “If Aspen doesn't get production, what chance is there for any of the other initiatives?” 

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