Some of SA’s leading scientists have written a scathing letter slamming the government’s apparent lethargy in securing a vaccine for the country at a time when Covid-19 is spreading uncontrollably around the world, sparking a race among countries to get their populations inoculated.

The scientists, including the head of the Medical Research Council, Glenda Gray and academics who were once part of the advisory committee advising health minister Zweli Mkhize, called for advice given by the ministerial advisory committee on vaccines to the government to be made public.

They also questioned the silence of their peers in the vaccine advisory committee and queried why they were not asking for what they had recommended to government from September to be publicised, suggesting  they had been “muzzled”.

As cases of Covid-19 rise to the highest daily levels ever in SA, the lack of a coherent vaccine strategy is leading to a growing outcry from doctors and nurses and from opposition political parties.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has faced criticism for apparently playing down the importance of vaccines, saying they are “ not a silver bullet” and emphasising non-pharmaceutical interventions like wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

The scientists were especially critical of what they said was government’s attempt to downplay the central role to be played by vaccines in containing the pandemic. The UK, Israel and the US have started rolling out vaccines for vulnerable people such as the elderly, as well as health workers,  but the government has not given a clear indication of when SA will access vaccines.

In his New Year’s address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the “vaccine will come”, while the deputy director general of the health department, Anban Pillay, suggested this would only happen in the second quarter of 2021. 

In their letter, the scientists said silence from those advising government suggested that they had been enlisted in a public relations’ “damage limitation” exercise to avoid accountability for an unclear vaccine strategy.  

“It is unconscionable that this has been allowed to occur and it is to the discredit of the advisory committee that it appears to have been enlisted in this exercise.”

The government is procuring vaccines through Covax, a World health partnership lead by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (Gavi), that aims to make vaccines available to 92 low and middle-income countries. It “beggars belief that SA”, a relatively wealthy country, found itself dependent on this facility. SA, they wrote, “is not a poor country, despite the best efforts of a corrupt political class to ensure that moniker”.

The signatories, including Aslam Dasoo, convenor of the Progressive Health Forum and once a senior ANC member, said the government's failure to purchase vaccines could lead to the ”greatest man-made failure to protect the population since the Aids pandemic.”

Health workers have started a petition to ask for vaccines as they are on the front line.

Read the letter here


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