The South African government has offered its consignment of AstraZeneca vaccines to the African Union to share with countries on the continent not afflicted by the 501Y.V2 variant of Covid-19, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Tuesday.
Mkhize said the news that the AstraZeneca vaccine had limited efficacy against the variant of the virus first detected in South Africa was “certainly disappointing”, but shifting it to fellow African governments would allow the government to recover the cost of the consignment.
“The AstraZeneca doses we purchased have been offered to the African Union platform, of which we are part of, and the AU will distribute to those countries who have already expressed interest in acquiring the stock. Therefore, please be assured there will be no wasteful and fruitless expenditure,” he said in the national assembly during the debate on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address.
The ministry received one million doses of the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India at the beginning of the month. However, it emerged last week that the AstraZeneca vaccine offered minimal protection against mild-to-moderate infection from the strain now most prevalent in South Africa.
The health minister stressed that the expiry date of the vaccines was 30 April.
Mkhize confirmed that vaccination of healthcare workers would start this week, with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and with the exact date to be announced by the president, although it is likely to be as soon as Wednesday, according to media reports.
The health minister said the company was applying for emergency-use authorisation and stressed that it had been established “without dispute” that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 57% effective against the 501Y.V2 variant.
“I would like to take the opportunity of settling the matter of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine roll-out because it must be understood that our sole purpose is to save lives and protect our healthcare workers,” Mkhize said.
“Firstly, it is without dispute that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 57% efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant and is fully protective against serious illness or death. On this basis, Johnson & Johnson are applying for emergency-use authorisation, and it is expected that it will be granted. With this evidence in hand, we will begin by vaccinating our healthcare workers with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” he said.
South Africa has purchased nine-million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Mkhize said, in addition to securing 500 000 doses free of charge. The latter will be used for vaccinating the healthcare workers, and delivery of the first batch of 80 000 is on course.
“Critically, an additional 500 000 doses are expected to arrive over the next four weeks, supplemented by another 20-million doses of the Pfizer vaccine that [are] expected to be received at the end of March,” Mkhize said.
“I can also say that we have actually secured enough doses to vaccinate all the people who will need to be vaccinated in South Africa.”
South Africa procured 1.5-million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the cost of $5.25 a dose but suspended plans to administer these last week.