SA is yet to provide clarity on how it plans to order vaccines, even as the global race to secure inoculations accelerates.

SA is hosting three trials, including for Johnson & Johnson and a partnership between AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, yet has not announced a firm strategy to immunise a population that’s bracing for a potential resurgence of the pandemic. Almost 22,000 people have died of Covid-19 in SA, the 14th-highest worldwide.

SA did confirm last week that it plans to sign up to Covax, a global initiative that strives to ensure that poorer countries have access to shots. The National Treasury has allocated R500m toward the programme and will need to find a further R4.5bn to move to “the front of the queue”, finance minister Tito Mboweni said in an interview.

That payment has yet to be made, according to Anban Pillay, deputy director-general at the department of health. Still, that doesn’t mean SA will miss out on the first batch of available vaccines, he said.

Even so, that proposal will initially provide doses for just 3% of the population of about 59-million, Pillay said, or 10% over the longer term. The government has said that front-line healthcare workers and the elderly will be given priority, meaning advance-purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies will be needed to protect the wider community.

“What worries me about the government is the clear lack of communication,” François Venter, a professor of medicine at Wits University and a former member of the ministerial advisory council on the virus, said in an interview. “We’re all sitting here terrified, not knowing if we get the vaccine.”

Behind Brazil

The lack of progress comes at a critical time for the country, which is seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases in some provinces just as millions of people prepare to travel to home towns and holiday destinations. A need for further restrictions is likely to undermine President Cyril Ramaphosa’s focus on revival.

While Pillay said the government has been talking to “a number of manufacturers” about bilateral deals, other countries have already put pen to paper. The UK has secured access to 357-million doses from seven different developers. Brazil has agreed to buy a total of 186-million from a combination of AstraZeneca and Covax.

In Africa, Botswana and Namibia agreed in November to procure sufficient vaccines from Covax for 20% of their populations of about 2-million each. Rwanda plans to raise $15m for its first batch of shots, finance minister Uzziel Ndagijimana said last week.

Lwazi Manzi, a spokesperson for health minister Zweli Mkhize, said the minister will make an announcement “in due course”. Barry Schoub, chair of the ministerial advisory council, said he can’t comment on plans to pre-order vaccines.

Pfizer, co-maker of the vaccine approved by the UK this week, said it has started engagements with the SA government, without giving further detail.

Manufacturing deal

Aspen Pharmacare, Africa’s biggest drugmaker, signed a deal last month to manufacture about a third of the 1-billion doses J&J hopes to produce next year in an SA factory. Half the total will be destined for emerging markets under the Covax programme, according to Stavros Nicolaou, Aspen’s senior executive for trade.

J&J has offered the shots to SA at not-for-profit prices, according to Glenda Gray, CEO of the SA Medical Research Council and co-chair of the local arm of the company’s trial.

SA should be “in a favorable position to start negotiations with manufacturers”, Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at Wits  and lead researcher on the country’s leg of the Oxford trial, said by text. “However, the government needs to engage with the manufacturers. I’ve no idea where government is with such negotiations.”


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