After Tough Negotiations, Pfizer Delivers First COVID Vaccines to South Africa

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa received its first batch of 325,260 Pfizer vaccine doses late on Sunday night, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced.

This follows lengthy negotiations between the South African government and Pfizer, during which the company made “difficult and sometimes unreasonable” terms including at one stage that the country put up sovereign assets as potential collateral, according to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

South Africa’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize

Mkhize sent a briefing letter to parliamentarians last month, saying that the government had been “relieved” when Pfizer eventually removed the “problematic term” which had put the government in the “precarious position of having to choose between saving our citizens’ lives and risking putting the country’s assets into private companies’ hands”, according to the bureau.

Samples of the Pfizer vaccines are currently undergoing quality checks by the National Control Laboratory, and will then be sent to urban vaccination centres where they will be administered to healthcare workers.

The country expects approximately the same number of doses – 325 260 – to arrive each week during May and 636 480 doses per week in June, with close to 4,5 million doses having been delivered by the end of next month.

Each person needs two doses of the vaccine, which also needs ultra-cold storage which makes it unsuitable for rural distribution.

Johnson & Johnson Vaccines Also Being Checked

South Africa has only vaccinated slightly more than 320,000 of its estimated 1.2 million health workers so far. The country opted not to use the AstraZeneca vaccine following research that showed that it had limited efficacy against the B.1.351 variant dominant in the country.

Until now, it has been vaccinating health workers with a very limited supply of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines. However, 1.1 million more J&J vaccines are in the country undergoing safety checks that are likely to be completed in mid-May. 

“This is due to a protracted safety verification process with international regulatory agencies,” said Mkhize in a statement on Sunday. 

“This is a precautionary measure following the adverse findings during inspection of Emergent BioSolutions Bayview facility in the United States, one of the manufacturing partners of Johnson and Johnson, which prompted the authorities to extend their assessments of all Johnson and Johnson stock worldwide.”

Once through the safety checks, the J&J vaccines will be used in rural settings as they don’t require ultra-cold storage and people only need one dose.

The country plans to start vaccinating all citizens over the age of 60 from 17 May.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has released modeling data last week which predicts that the country can expect a “third wave” of the pandemic in two to three months – but that this is not likely to be as severe as the second wave as long as there are no new variants.

“The most likely drivers of a third wave are behaviour change after the end of the last wave;  ongoing viral mutation; seasonal factors; and reinfection due to the waning of immunity conveyed by previous infection,” according to the NICD.

Image Credits: US Centers for Disease Control, GCIS.

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