Covid-19 in Africa

South Africa gets rid of 1 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses, but why?

A healthcare worker receives the Johnson and Johnson  vaccination against Covid-19 at Khayelitsha Hospital near Cape Town on 17 February,  2021.
A healthcare worker receives the Johnson and Johnson vaccination against Covid-19 at Khayelitsha Hospital near Cape Town on 17 February, 2021. REUTERS - MIKE HUTCHINGS

South Africa has concluded the sale of a million AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine doses to other members of the African Union, considering the supply was 'surplus to requirements'.

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Fewer than 200,000 people in South Africa have been vaccinated against Covid-19 so far, but the country’s health ministry confirmed on Sunday that its reserves of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are to leave the country.

A statement by health minister Zweli Mkhize relayed on social media said “all member states identified by the AU vaccines acquisition teams as recipients of the vaccines were compliant and had obtained all regulatory approvals, permits and licences to roll out the vaccines in their respective countries.

“The minister can confirm that the full purchase amount was received by the department on Monday last week,” the statement read. It made no mention of prices and did not name the countries that had purchased the vaccines.

Why the sale?

South Africa received a batch of 1 million AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute of India in early February and its much vaunted vaccination campaign was set to steam ahead.

But a small trial suggesting the shot offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness caused by the 501Y.V2 Covid variant dominant in the country, put the brakes on the country’s mass inoculation programme.

Although further studies suggest that AZ still gives higher protection against the threat of hospitalisation and death, the health department was not convinced. It paused the AstraZeneca programme and began inoculating healthcare workers with the US-manufactured Johnson & Johnson shots in a research study.

Government officials have previous said the country has secured 9 million J&J single-dose shots.

In the South African arm of a large global trial, the J&J vaccine proved to be 89 percent effective at preventing severe disease and 57 percent effective against moderate to severe disease. About 95 percent of infections in the local study were due to the South African variant.

Slow roll-out criticised

The cancellation of the use of AstraZeneca vaccines has considerably slowed down South Africa’s innoculation campaign.

So far only 160,000 health workers have been vaccinated with the J&J vaccine, just 13 percent of the target to vaccinate 1.25 million people by the end of first quarter.

Workers unload the second shipment of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine from a plane upon its arrival at the O R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on February 27, 2021.
Workers unload the second shipment of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine from a plane upon its arrival at the O R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on February 27, 2021. AFP - KIM LUDBROOK

Those over 60 or with co-morbidities are not meant to be vaccinated until a later second phase, along with other essential workers and people who work in crowded settings.

But on Monday a South African business lobby group called for the government to shift the emphasis to the elderly and vulnerable sooner, to prevent hospitals being overrun in a third wave of Covid-19 infections.

Stavros Nicolaou, an executive of Aspen Pharmacare which has a contract to make J&J vaccines in South Africa, and who also serves as chairman of the Public Health Workgroup at business lobby Business for South Africa (B4SA), said the group had called for changes in light of the slow roll-out.

"In the absence of having sufficient vaccines in quarter two, it makes more sense to start vaccinating people who are in the mortality curve, and not overwhelm the healthcare services," Nicolaou told Reuters on Monday.

According to the health ministry’s latest data, over 52,000 people in South Africa have died from the coronavirus, while more than 1.5 million people have been infected. A total of 183,000 people have been vaccinated so far.

Ultimately, the government plans to vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of the population, to achieve some level of herd immunity.

(with Reuters)

 

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