Vaccine: Government defends itself in delay accusations

Leaders in South Africa’s medical fraternity have called for the axing of government officials responsible for the delay in procuring Covid-19 vaccines for the country. The experts say that the delay is “[an] unforgivable failure, which will be measured in lives lost in their thousands, sickness for tens of thousands, a broken health-care system and profound and ongoing economic damage.” Glenda Gray, the president of the South African Medical Research Council signed an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, calling for action against officials. Gray was removed from the ministerial advisory committee and had previously criticised government’s approach to management of the Covid-19 virus. Members of government committees on Covid-19 and the department of Health have defended government’s processes and attempted to explain the delays in vaccine procurement. – Melani Nathan 

COVID-19 vaccine “not only weapon to end pandemic”

Leading experts in South Africa’s vaccine procurement strategy say while securing a Covid-19 vaccine is top of the country’s agenda, it is not a magic bullet that will end the pandemic. “There is a general misunderstanding and we need to clarify that once the vaccines arrive on our doorstep, that is not the end of the epidemic. “The first branches will go to protect healthcare workers and will have no effect on the population as such. Then there will be immunisation of the population and that is going to take a long time,” said Professor Barry Schoub, who is the Ministerial Advisory Committee chairperson on vaccine development.

Schoub, together with the Health Department Deputy Director General, Dr Anban Pillay, and South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) extramural unit researcher, Safura Abdool Karim, engaged in a panel discussion broadcast by the SABC on the Covid-19 vaccine outlook in 2021.

South Africa is set to receive initial vaccines from the Covax facility to cover 10% of its population in the early part of 2021. Priority of the vaccine roll out will begin with healthcare workers, the elderly and those with comorbidities.

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“The Covax facility has indicated that we should expect delivery of the vaccine in quarter two [of 2021]. They are trying very hard to get us delivery before that. If they succeed with the manufacturers, then we may get delivery earlier but we do not have a specific date as yet. Covax indicated to us that in early January, they will have a firm date on when exactly that delivery will come through and we will certainly communicate that as soon as we hear what that date is,” said Pillay.

Dispelling some misconceptions that government failed to procure the vaccine on time, Karim explained the historic inequity within the procurement of medicine. “The one thing I would want to dispute is the idea that our situation is as a result of poor planning. The reason South Africa is not able to access the vaccine is in the way the US and UK have is that we are not a wealthy country and that is a historic inequity. Poorer countries are always left behind when it comes to health interventions and that is not a result of our government not wanting a vaccine. That is a result of a system that prioritises profits over people’s lives,” said Karim.

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Additionally, Pillay said South Africa wants to acquire a vaccine with the best efficacy, which will be easily stored for mass roll out. “One needs to bear in mind that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius. Many countries did not opt to go with the Pfizer vaccine as a mass vaccination programme because it is very difficult to do that, particularly in a country like South Africa and many other developing nations that do not have storage capacity for -70 degrees.

“We have commercially only two large storage facilities that will keep a -70 degrees vaccine. So we would not be able to keep the large quantities that are required to vaccinate many people,” he said.

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