South Africa to Get Vaccines for Health Workers This Month
A medical worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) collects a nasal swab sample at a walk-in and drive-thru coronavirus testing facility in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg)

South Africa to Get Vaccines for Health Workers This Month

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South Africa struck a deal to receive the country’s first coronavirus vaccines this month and next, the earliest phase of a plan the government says will inoculate two-thirds of the population by the end of 2021.

An initial 1.5 million doses will come from The Serum Institute of India Ltd., which is producing the version developed by AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in a statement on Thursday. They will be reserved for health workers, and negotiations are ongoing with other manufacturers about further supplies, he said.

The deal may serve to ease criticism of the government from labor unions and health professionals over its lack of progress in procuring vaccines, even as about 40 other countries start their programs. South Africa reported a daily record of confirmed cases from Covid-19 on Wednesday, and President Cyril Ramaphosa and other top officials are considering tightening lockdown measures.

Mkhize’s plan will require about 6,300 full-time vaccinators, delivering 316,000 doses a day, he said. After health workers, a second phase will prioritize essential workers and adults with co-morbidities, such as HIV, tuberculosis and obesity.

It’s a “super ambitious” plan, according to Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. Administering the vaccine is complex and South Africa could do 30 people per vaccinator per day at most, rather than the 50 proposed, he said.

With one of the world’s lowest coverage of childhood vaccinations the country can’t afford to redeploy workers from these programs or from those treating Covid-19 patients, he said.

“South Africa already had a nursing shortage before Covid-19. Now you are asking tired and stretched healthcare workers to work seven days a week for many more months,” Madhi said. While the country has a good supply of these childhood vaccines, “the programs administering them are not robust and many parents don’t bring their children forward, partly because of poor experiences at the point of the vaccine.”

Fund Raising

Mkhize earlier presented a broader vaccine rollout plan to lawmakers, saying the purchase of enough doses for 67% of South Africa’s population would cost 20.6 billion rand ($1.4 billion). The government will be the sole buyer, before allocating vaccines to regional authorities and the private sector. The majority will come from AstraZeneca, which has set a price of 54 rand each, compared with Moderna Inc’s 536 rand, according to the minister.

The National Treasury will put up the majority of the cost, though the government will also look to raise funds and ask medical-insurance providers to contribute, Mkhize said.

South Africa plans to source about 70% of vaccines from AstraZeneca and 20% from Johnson & Johnson, which hasn’t yet gained regulatory approval but Durban-based Aspen Pharmacare Ltd. has agreed to manufacture its version in the country. Talks with J&J are at “an advanced stage” and developments will be announced soon, The Department of Health said late Thursday.

The balance will come from Moderna and Pfizer Inc., which Mkhize said is charging about 299 rand a dose, or about $20. A person familiar with the matter said earlier this week that the U.S. firm has offered to charge $10. The government has said previously it expects to receive vaccines through the Covax initiative, which is trying to ensure equitable access.

South Africa has world’s highest number of HIV infections -- almost 8 million. High obesity levels have boosted the number of diabetes sufferers, which make up about 13% of the population.

Adding to the burden, there were disruptions to HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes and childhood vaccination programs last year during the strictest part of the lockdown and that means there is likely to be more people presenting with complications from these diseases this year, Madhi said.

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