The government will sign an agreement to procure another 20-million Johnson & Johnson vaccines against Covid-19 within the next two days, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told MPs on Tuesday.
“We can confirm that negotiations on vaccine procurement are complete and signing will take place in the next 48 hours,” he said. “These are confirmed and we just have to close the agreement in a day or two.”
Mkhize said this meant there were now 31-million doses of Johnson & Johnson in the pipeline and it would be the vaccine of first choice for rural areas because of the ease of storage and the fact that a single injection offered sufficient protection against the virus.
“We prefer to deploy Johnson & Johnson to rural areas and population groups which are having various challenges, such as the elderly, or have difficulties returning for a second dose.”
He said the government was “negotiating the terms of these additional” doses at the moment and this was the vaccine that the majority of South Africans would receive.
The first batch of vaccines were being put through compulsory safety and sterility checks.
The minister added that the extensive procurement talks in recent months has meant that South Africa has strengthened its relationship with vaccine manufacturers, despite its relative “lack of financial muscle”.
Mkhize said although the government’s forced U-turn on using AstraZeneca delayed the start of the vaccination programme, this has not changed its target timeline of vaccinating the entire adult population by 17 February next year
This would still, as planned, entail vaccinating healthcare workers within three months, high risk groups within the ensuing six months and the rest of the nation’s adults within the remaining three months of the year.
“We are as keen as all fellow South Africans to establish parity with our counterparts globally,” he said. “We still have not lost the original, phased time frames that we proposed.”
The government, under fire in January for delays in securing vaccines, bought 1.5-million doses of AstraZeneca only to discover that it did not offer adequate protection against the B.1.351 local variant and so sold the shots to other African nations.
Mkhize said although South Africa remained in talks with the Covax facility, it only had AstraZeneca and Novavax on offer and hence was not in a position to supply the local health system.