Inside Covid-19: Johann Rupert denies jumping queue; what vaccine ‘apartheid’ means for SA, the world

As South African billionaire Johann Rupert makes world headlines for getting a vaccine in Switzerland, receiving his jab in December, we explore how global collaboration is being jeopardised – at the expense of the developing world. It’s a race against time to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and develop herd immunity, around the globe as the Covid-19 virus mutates. There are concerns there’s a risk of a widening immunity gap, in addition to fairness considerations. Widespread deployment of vaccines is seen as the key to reviving battered economies everywhere. We speak to Theo Murphy, Africa Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, for an overview of the geopolitical dynamics and how these impact on countries like South Africa – and why the country lags many other nations in securing vaccines. This debate is not just about access to vaccines but access to the most potent vaccines, as we hear from our partners at Bloomberg, later on in this episode. Jackie Cameron & Jarryd Neves

Inside Covid-19 headlines

  • More than 138,000 people tested positive for Covid-19 in January in South Africa. South Africa recorded 647 coronavirus-related deaths in a 24-hour period, pushing the total number of confirmed deaths to 39,501, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced late Thursday. The worst hit provinces are the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, with just under 10,000 deaths reported in each province. Among those to have died this week is: Minister in The Presidency and former ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu.
  • The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported about 98m cases of and about 2,1m deaths around the world as a result of Covid-19.
  • South Africa will pay $5.25 (about R80) per dose for 1.5 million shots of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII), a senior official said on Thursday, more than some wealthier countries are paying. Health department Deputy Director-General Anban Pillay told Reuters that SII’s price was based on South Africa’s status as an upper-middle-income country under a World Bank classification. The price is higher than the $3 (about R45) a dose that South Africa and other countries on the continent are due to pay for the same vaccine under an African Union (AU) arrangement, and the 2.5 euros ($3.03) per dose European Union countries have agreed to pay. South Africa is hosting clinical trials of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca in partnership with Oxford University, raising questions about the higher price it will be paying.
  • The UK is believed to have spent between £24 (about R450) and £28 per dose on the Moderna jab, the Daily Mail reports. The domestically produced Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine cost the government around £3 (about R50) per jab, according to the BBC, while the Pfizer/BioNTech jab has a price tag of around £15  (just under R300). Over in Israel, which is leading the global race to vaccinate populations, the authorities initially claimed to be paying the equivalent of £22 (R400) per dose of the Pfizer jab – substantially more than the UK is shelling out. And the price paid by the Israelis may be even higher, with a health official later telling public broadcaster Kan that each dose had actually cost his country £34. Meanwhile, Belgium’s Budget State Secretary Eva De Bleeker gave an insight into what the EU is paying when she accidentally tweeted a table last month that showed the price of each jab. The now-deleted tweet revealed that the EU is handing over €1.78 (£1.59; R36) for each dose of the Oxford vaccine and €12 (£10.60; more than R200) for the Pfizer version. The Twitter gaffe was noted across the Atlantic, where The New York Times noted that the table also showed that the US was paying above the odds for the Pfizer vaccine, at $19.50 (£14.27; about R300) per dose. In Russia, the manufacturers of the one-dose Sputnik vaccine said in a statement back in November that the cost of its vaccine “for international markets will be less than $10 per dose starting from February 2021”. “Thus, Sputnik V will be will be two or more times cheaper than foreign vaccines based on mRNA technology with similar efficacy rates,” the company added, says the Daily Mail.
  • UK government officials have suggested paying people to stay home if they test positive for coronavirus, amid concerns too many are failing to get tested or comply with the lockdown rules, says Bloomberg. While the plan has not been given final approval, a draft government policy paper proposed payments of 500 pounds ($685) or R10,000. Currently only those on the lowest incomes receive support at this level if they’re told to quarantine. The policy, which would cost about R2bn/month, would be designed to overcome people’s fear of losing income if forced to self-isolate by a positive test, according to a document dated Jan. 19 obtained by The Guardian and confirmed to Bloomberg by a person familiar with the matter.
  • South Africa has a three-month plan to import, store and distribute coronavirus vaccines for frontline healthcare workers through a contract with pharmaceutical company Biovac Institute, a letter from the National Treasury shows. Bloomberg reports that this is the first detail on how the government plans to roll out its Covid-19 vaccine plan, following concerns that the creaking public health system would not be able to manage a large-scale vaccination programme without the involvement of the private sector.
  • A drug developed by Eli Lilly dramatically reduced the risk of developing symptomatic Covid-19 among nursing home residents, the company said. Of 299 residents, half of whom received a placebo, those randomised to receive the drug bamlanivimab had up to an 80% lower risk of contracting Covid-19, according to a study that has not yet been published, reports USA Today. Health care providers at the same nursing homes were statistically less likely to contract symptomatic Covid-19 after receiving bamlanivimab, which was delivered in a 4,200 mg dose. Among 41 residents who already tested positive for the virus, none died after receiving the drug compared with four deaths in the placebo group.
  • The coronavirus pandemic may no longer be spreading exponentially in the UK, according to government data suggesting the country’s third lockdown is working. Bloomberg reports that the official estimate of the “R rate” – which measures how many people each infected person passes the virus on to – fell to between 0.8 and 1, the results released on Friday showed. When R is above 1 the virus spreads exponentially. Last week, the R rate was estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.3. The government said the case rates remain “dangerously high” and urged the public to keep to lockdown rules.
  • Robust demand in China, VW’s largest market, helped the German manufacturer rebound from the coronavirus outbreak that sparked the most widespread shutdown of global car production since World War II, says Bloomberg. Although global vehicle deliveries fell 15% to 9.3 million, VW emerged with a small gain in market share as some peers took a bigger hit.
  • President Joe Biden warned the nation to prepare for its darkest days in the yearlong pandemic, predicting that as many as 100,000 more Americans will die over the next month as he overhauls the federal coronavirus response and presses Congress for more aid. “Let me be very clear – things are going to continue to get worse before they get better,” Biden is quoted as saying. “The brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated.” Bloomberg reports that Biden signed a series of executive orders that would impose testing and mask requirements for travellers, produce federal guidance to reopen schools and bolster domestic manufacturing of supplies to combat the virus. He was flanked by a new team of scientists and doctors, including Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s best-known infectious disease experts, who he said would help the US response from here on out. 
  • Richemont Chairman Johann Rupert received his first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic his family has investment ties to in Switzerland, sparking a controversy in the country about who should get inoculated first. The South African billionaire got the shot at Hirslanden AG, which is owned by Mediclinic International, a hospital operator the Rupert family has invested in through Remgro. Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger said he was one of 12 test patients in the canton of Thurgau shortly before vaccinations were offered to a wider public on Jan. 12. Rupert’s wealth and connection to Hirslanden raised concern that he got preferential treatment and jumped the line as the vast majority of the Swiss elderly and high-risk population still wait for the shot. “This is an affront to all Thurgau residents who have been waiting for a vaccination appointment for weeks,” Nina Schlaefli, a Socialist politician, said in a tweet. Rupert said his physician arranged the vaccination because he is 70 and has co-morbidities as defined by Swiss law. The country has started vaccinations for various groups of people, including those over 75 or with serious health issues. Rupert is South Africa’s country’s richest person with a net worth of $8.4bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His family has committed R1bn ($66m) to South Africa’s Solidarity Fund to support small businesses and save jobs, adds Bloomberg. *In a piece on Business Day Rupert responded to the article in Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger denying he’d jumped any queues: “They are already on healthy 55-year-olds in Zurich from next Monday. The Richemont executive committee decided in December that the entire leadership would get vaccinated as soon as possible to set an example for the rest of our colleagues — many of whom were worried or scared or doubtful about vaccines.”
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