President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

SA has signed a deal with pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson (J&J) that adds 2-million more doses to what was initially secured, President Cyril Ramaphosa revealed on Sunday evening.

Vaccination is critical as it will save lives and support the complete reopening of the economy, which has been devastated by the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the virus in SA, Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation.

The coronavirus has hit SA harder than any other country on the African continent. As of Saturday more than 1.5-million cases and close to 50,000 deaths from Covid-19 have been officially recorded, though scientists estimate that the true figures could be much higher.

Ramaphosa has, however, now opened up more parts of the economy as the second wave of the infections has passed. Meanwhile, government's vaccine strategy is being ramped up.

“We have recently signed an agreement with J&J to secure 11-million doses. Of these doses, 2.8-million doses will be delivered in the second quarter and the rest spread throughout the year,” Ramaphosa said in a televised address. This was up from the 9-million doses of J&J’s single shot vaccine that were originally secured.

The announcement comes a day after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency-use authorisation for the J&J vaccine for the prevention of Covid-19, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus.

While the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority was still busy with its own rolling review of the vaccine, the move by the FDA was seen as positive. The J&J vaccine is currently being administered to health-care workers as part of the Sisonke implementation study, which was devised as a bridging mechanism until other vaccines become available.

Ramaphosa said in the 10 days since SA launched its coronavirus vaccination programme more than 67,000 health workers — those at the front line of the fight against Covid-19 — had been vaccinated.

SA also secured 20-million vaccine doses from Pfizer, which will be delivered from the second quarter of this year. “Additionally, we have secured 12-million vaccine doses from the Covax facility and are in the process of finalising our dose allocation from the AU,” Ramaphosa said.

The SA government is in constant contact with various other vaccine manufacturers to ensure that SA will have the necessary quantities of vaccines when the country needs them.

In terms of the vaccination programme, Ramaphosa said once the vaccination of health-care workers has been completed phase two of the rollout would begin in late April or early May. Phase two will include the elderly, essential workers, those living or working in institutional settings, and those with co-morbidities.

Ramaphosa said for this phase SA would activate many more sites for vaccination in the public and private health-care sectors so that as many people as possible could be reached in the shortest possible time.

While the vaccine rollout is critical in terms of economic recovery, Ramaphosa announced that the country will now move back to the least restrictive level of the lockdown.

The country was moved back to level 3 of the lockdown in December as the second wave hit the country, but restrictions have been gradually lifted since then.

As part of the latest relaxation of the regulations the curfew will now take place from 12pm to 4am. Gatherings — including political and religious meetings — are now allowed with limited numbers, while restrictions on alcohol sales have been dropped. The only alcohol restriction that remains in place is that alcohol cannot be sold during the hours of curfew.

“The few remaining restrictions under alert level 1 are meant to maintain low levels of infections and, in particular, to prevent super-spreading events,” Ramaphosa said.

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