Africa’s Virus Capital Risks Becoming Vaccine Laggard

South Africa, which has Africa’s worst recorded coronavirus outbreak, may have to wait months to receive its first vaccines even as other countries race to roll out the shots.

The government only expects vaccines that it paid a deposit to secure from the World Health Organization’s Covax program to arrive in the second quarter of 2021, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa. The wait bodes ill for a country that’s confronting a new more virulent strain of the virus, record new infections and a populace that’s increasingly eschewed social distancing.

Talks with drug companies about supplementing South Africa’s Covax allocation are ongoing, Ramaphosa said in an address Monday night, in which he announced the re-imposition of several restrictions aimed at curbing the pandemic’s spread. It’s unclear when or whether those shots will be made available, with several wealthy nations having already prepaid to pin down most of the initial production.

“With a lot of advanced purchasing of vaccines, it will be hard to jump the queues in trying to secure earlier vaccine doses,” said Stavros Nicolaou, an executive at Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. and head of the health work group at Business for South Africa, an alliance of the nation’s biggest business groups that’s known as B4SA.

The Solidarity Fund, which was established to support the government’s pandemic response and is backed by some of the country’s biggest companies and richest individuals, paid the initial 283 million rand ($19.3 million) Covax deposit. It will cost a total of 2.7 billion rand for South Africa to secure its full allocation of six million doses from the facility -- sufficient to cover about 10% of the population.

South Africa’s biggest labor group said the government’s vaccine roll-out program does not inspire confidence. “More so when other countries across Europe and the Americas have begun mass vaccinations, the Congress of South African Trade Unions said in a statement. “We cannot afford to allow South Africans to die because of state lethargy.”

It has called on the government and the private sector to produce a plan to ensure all South Africans are vaccinated during 2021.

While the government wants to secure alternate supplies immediately, affordability remains a major constraint, and the efficacy of a number of potential shots remains unproven, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in an online briefing on Tuesday. The pandemic has exacerbated state funding constraints, with the central bank expecting the economy to contract 8% this year.

The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, called on the government to reprioritize its spending and redirect a 10.5 billion rand bailout earmarked for the bankrupt national airline toward paying for vaccines. The money could be used to inoculate as many as 23 million people based on current costs and exchange rates, it said in a statement.

Discovery Health, the nation’s biggest medical insurer, said it’s in talks with the government to secure access to vaccines and funds have been ring-fenced to provide the shots to its members when they become available.

‘Reasonable Expectation’

“Given there are only two vaccines that have received emergency-use approval at this stage and the time required to ramp-up vaccine manufacturing, it is difficult to accurately project timelines at this stage,” Ronald Whelan, Discovery Health’s chief commercial officer, said in an emailed response to questions. “Some time in the second quarter of 2021 would likely be a reasonable expectation.”

More than 5.1 million vaccine doses have been administered in 22 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. South Africa, which has recorded more than 1 million Covid-19 infections so far, needs to join their ranks as soon as possible, according to B4SA.

“We will do whatever is needed to ensure that the requisite vaccine supplies are secured and distributed as a matter of extreme urgency,” said Martin Kingston, who heads the group’s steering committee.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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