Picture: 123RF/SASIRIN PAMAI
Picture: 123RF/SASIRIN PAMAI

A month after the government began dispensing Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J’s) coronavirus shots to health-care workers, a mere 0.3% of SA’s population has been vaccinated.

SA is lagging behind countries such as Ghana, Panama and Uruguay and, at just 168,413 vaccines administered so far, it has managed less than half the number the UK typically does in a single day. According to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker, the US administered an average 2.47-million doses a day in the week through March 17.

Here, most of the country’s 1.25-million health-care workers still don’t know when they will get their shots; nor for that matter does the rest of the population.

To the general population, the fact that the J&J shots being provided to health-care workers are part of a carefully controlled implementation study with access to a limited supply of donated research stock is irrelevant. All people really want to know is when their turn will come and whether they or their elderly relatives will be protected by the winter.

The government has provided scant details on when and how its three-phase national rollout will begin. There is also a lack of clarity on whether medical schemes will be compelled to pay a premium for the vaccines dispensed to their members; who will be deemed an essential worker; and whether they will be vaccinated ahead of the elderly or people with co-morbidities.

The longer the sequencing issue remains open for debate, the greater the risk that those interest groups that shout the loudest will elbow their way to the front of the queue.

After an initial slow start, the government finally secured enough vaccine doses to cover its target population of 40-million adults, and for that it certainly deserves some credit. It has signed an agreement with J&J for 9-million doses of its single-dose vaccine, with scope to procure up to 20-million more, and is poised to finalise a deal with Pfizer for 20-million doses of its double-shot vaccine.

But it has a major timing problem on its hands, as the bulk of these doses will only arrive in the second half of the year. The delay raises the alarming prospect that many of SA’s most vulnerable citizens will remain unvaccinated when the next surge occurs. Not only will another surge leave death and heartache in its wake, it also raises the spectre of yet another round of restrictions on trade and gatherings, with commensurate harm to the economy.

Media reports of the negotiating tactics employed by Pfizer in several South American countries suggest the government’s drawn-out talks with pharmaceutical companies couldn’t have been easy. It was clearly in no position to bargain, and has almost certainly been a price-taker, given the relatively small volume of vaccines it has sought compared to the US or EU.

As is the case with governments around the world, SA is entirely at the mercy of manufacturers’ production schedules and delivery timelines. And the government appears to have been pressured into agreeing to a no-fault compensation scheme that effectively absolves manufacturers from liability for any harm caused by their products.

To be fair, the government was also dealt an unexpected blow by the last-minute discovery that its original vaccine of choice — the AstraZeneca shot — offered minimal protection against infection from the new 501Y.V2 variant detected in SA late in 2020. If it had been confident in the efficacy of these shots, it would not only have had 1.5-million doses to hand from the Serum Institute of India, but would in all likelihood have already received supplies from the international vaccine financing vehicle Covax.

But that doesn’t let the government off the hook for being an inoculation laggard. The vaccine shortage, like persistent electricity shortages, is largely due to a failure to plan, the result of a steady hollowing out of the public service that began during former president Jacob Zuma’s tenure.

The current administration also has a case to answer, for it has singularly failed to build an A-team capable of rising to the challenge, and SA is paying a big price.

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