South Africa’s Vaccine Plan Draws Scrutiny as Funding Sought

South Africa’s government has drawn criticism over its Covid-19 vaccine rollout plan, with unions and medical groups among those to have expressed concern about the sluggishness of the state’s response amid a resurgence in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

While at least 29 countries, from Mexico to Germany, have begun inoculating their populations against the virus, South Africa has yet to conclude any supply agreements with pharmaceutical companies. With more than 1.1 million confirmed coronavirus infections and approaching 30,000 deaths, South Africa is the worst-hit country on the African continent.

The government’s failure to conclude talks with manufacturers of the shots has left the country “bearing the brunt of the scarcity of vaccines,” the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union said in an emailed statement. The government has been “caught napping,” the labor group said, while the existing program is “scant on details and very ambiguous on the timelines.”

South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said Sunday the government plans to vaccinate more than 40 million of the population -- about two thirds -- against Covid-19 in an urgent and phased approach to ultimately eliminate infections. Funding assistance is being sought from business and medical-insurance companies, he said in an online briefing.

“The vaccines will need to be made available quickly” so that most citizens are covered by the end of the year, he said. Discussions with manufactures are still under way, with an aim to obtain the first inoculations next month.

The deliberations come as South Africa experiences a debilitating resurgence of the virus, driven by a new strain that emerged in the country late last year. Hospitals are under pressure, and the government last week toughened restrictions to include a third alcohol ban and a 9 p.m. curfew. Those measures are set to be reviewed in mid-month, though a lockdown of the severity seen in March and April would have a devastating impact on an already struggling economy.

South Africa’s biggest business group said it is “seriously considering” a request by the government to help fund the acquisition of vaccines, and would support a plan that is “transparent, credible, with integrity and clearly defined.”

Pharma Talks

The state is holding direct talks with vaccine suppliers including Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca Plc and Pfizer Inc. over supplies for the country, the presidency said in a statement sent to Bloomberg News on Sunday. Four vaccine trials are being conducted in the country.

Pfizer, whose shot developed alongside BioNTech SE has been approved in some countries, has offered to supply South Africa at $10 a dose -- half what it charges in the U.S. -- according to a person familiar with that matter. Talks are ongoing, though the presidency said the cost is still “prohibitive.”

South Africa has secured doses through Covax, an initiative designed to ensure equitable access to vaccines, which will ensure that 10% of the population is immunized, Mkhize said. Delivery is expected in the second quarter of the year.

Separately, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union appealed to mining companies to ensure that employees are vaccinated.

“The industry’s focus right now is on prevention of Covid-19, which includes intensive screening and testing where required,” Minerals Council South Africa said in response.

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