Johannesburg, South Africa – South Africa, the continent’s worst COVID-hit country, is due to receive its first batch of coronavirus vaccines on Monday.
Initially scheduled for the end of January, the first one million shots of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine produced in India will be used to inoculate healthcare workers over the next three months. The second batch of 500,000 jabs is scheduled to arrive later in February.
Despite criticism from opposition parties and medical experts that the procurement process of the vaccine has taken too long, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize has called the arrival of the vaccines from the Serum Institute of India “a massive achievement of unprecedented proportions”.
Once the consignment has undergone quality checks, which are going to take between 10 and 14 days, the country will begin its long-awaited, three-phase immunisation campaign. Following the inoculation of front-line healthcare workers, other high-risk groups such as the elderly, people with comorbidities and essential workers such as minibus drivers, police and teachers are going to receive their shot. The third phase targets everyone else above the age of 18.
The first shipment of 1 million doses of the #OxfordAstraZeneca vaccine from the @SerumInstIndia is on the way to @ortambo_int
The shipment left the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai today and will arrive in South Africa on 1 February 2021.#COVID19 pic.twitter.com/lTw1EtGi0d
— South African Government (@GovernmentZA) January 31, 2021
The arrival of the jabs comes a month after the United Kingdom was the first to roll out the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and some two months after the UK and the United States began using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Responding to accusations that the delay was caused by the South African government starting negotiations too late, Deputy Director-General for the National Department of Health Dr Anban Pillay told Al Jazeera: “We could not procure a vaccine without knowing that it is effective, safe and when it would be delivered. This info only became available in December for some vaccines. We had to wait to have this info before we make a financial commitment.”
Under its agreement, South Africa is paying $5.25 per shot, $2 more than what is going to cost when the same vaccine arrives within the deal the African Union (AU) has secured for African countries.
Professor Barry Schoeb, who chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on COVID-19, said South Africa prioritised the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine as “it is the one that was immediately available”.
Authorities aim to vaccinate 40 million South Africans by the end of 2021, or 65 percent of the population of almost 60 million. “But efficiency will depend on a whole lot of factors,” Mkhize acknowledged in a public web briefing about the vaccine last week, including the uncertainty of whether South Africa is going to actually receive the ordered doses.
While he promised the government would do its best to get as many people vaccinated as possible, “many other countries are currently not getting the supplies they ordered”, the minister cautioned.
According to official sources, 21 million shots of the Pfizer (12 million) and the Johnson & Johnson (nine million) vaccines have been secured through collective programmes such as the World Health Organization-backed COVAX scheme and the AU, as well as bilateral deals with suppliers. Meanwhile, Mkhize told a Sunday newspaper another 20 million shots had been ordered by Pfizer, taking South Africa’s expected supply to more than 40 million doses.
“These vaccines are secured and awaiting manufacturers to submit final agreements with details of delivery dates and exact amounts,” Mkhize told The Sunday Times.
South Africa is the African country most affected by the pandemic, counting almost 1.5 million confirmed cases and nearly 44,000 related deaths. In January, new daily infections peaking at more than 20,000, the vast majority of whom could be traced back to a new strain identified last year.
The potent new 501Y.V2 variant is thought to be 50 percent more transmissible than previous variants, while some studies have shown it to be relatively more resistant to existing vaccines.
Whether the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is effective against it is currently being studied, with results expected in the coming days.
— Department of Health: COVID-19 (@COVID_19_ZA) January 30, 2021
Meanwhile, the government has launched a social media campaign – using hashtags such as #VacciNation and #ListenToTheExperts – to debunk myths and rumours about COVID-19 and vaccines that have been widely circulating.
“We are going to ensure that there is adequate information available to the communities to remove the doubts about the vaccines,” said Mkhize.
The Department of Health is currently conducting a study to find out the level of information about vaccines among healthcare workers, as some appear apprehensive of getting inoculated.
“People are scared. They talk about 5G, triple 6 and microchips,” said a nurse working at a clinic near central Johannesburg. According to the nurse’s information, online training of nurses will begin on Monday.
“Healthcare workers have not been informed enough about the vaccine,” said Sibongiseni Delihlaso, from the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa.
“It is them who will be driving this on the ground. How are these people going to convince patients to get the vaccine if they are not convinced?”