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3 February 2021
COVID-19 Vaccines Arrive: Hope On The Horizon?

On Monday, 1 February 2021, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in South Africa - giving us reason for hope, according to public health specialist Professor Helen Schneider, a health systems and policy researcher at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) School of Public Health.

“The arrival of the first vaccine doses in South Africa is indeed an extremely important moment,” Prof Schneider noted. “What is also particularly significant is the commitment by Government to ensure universal access to the vaccines - and to not discriminate between citizens and other residents of the country.”

One million doses of the Covishield vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute in India and developed by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, together with the University of Oxford, were received, while another 500 000 will arrive later this month.

“The arrival of these vaccines contains the promise that we can turn the tide on this disease that has caused so much devastation and hardship in our country and across the world,” SA President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his update to the nation. “The speed and scale at which new vaccines have been developed is unprecedented in human history and represents the monumental progress that humanity can achieve in the face of a common threat.”

Clinical trials to test the vaccine’s efficacy were held in many countries, including South Africa. The vaccines will now be tested at the National Control Laboratory to confirm that their integrity has been maintained during transportation. Then, in accordance with the country’s phased rollout strategy, all healthcare workers in the public and private sectors will be prioritised for vaccination.

“The initial phases of the rollout, targeting health workers, is likely to go quite rapidly,” Prof Schneiders said. “We have the infrastructure to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to health workers, who already receive vaccines in health facilities connected to supply chains that ensure vaccine access.”

Phase 2 of the national vaccine strategy will include essential workers, people over 60 years and people with comorbidities, as well as those living in places such as nursing homes and hostels. In Phase 3, the vaccination programme will be extended to the rest of the adult population.

“The logistical arrangements to ensure that increasing numbers of the general adult population are vaccinated - and to secure sufficient doses to ensure that all adults who wish to be vaccinated are vaccinated - will be more complex,” Prof Schneider said. “There are also long-term considerations around intellectual property, tech transfer and the capacity to manufacture vaccines in South Africa - challenges and issues that do have to be addressed.”

Global Cooperation Needed To Avoid Global Disaster

South Africa has also secured 12 million doses in total from the global COVAX facility (2 million doses of which are to be released in March), and 9 million vaccine doses from Johnson & Johnson, commencing with delivery in the second quarter of 2021 (SA pharmaceutical company Aspen has been contracted to manufacture these vaccines). And Pfizer has committed 20 million vaccine doses, also commencing with deliveries in the second quarter.

But this may be too little, too late, according to Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town and Chancellor of UWC - unless the United States and many countries in the Global North lend a helping hand to South Africa and other countries in the Global South. 

“The current voluntary vaccine supply mechanisms, such as COVAX, and bi-lateral agreements used to procure vaccines across the world are failing South Africa, the rest of the Global South and indeed the rest of the world,” Archbishop Makgoba pointed out in an open letter on behalf of The People’s Vaccine Campaign (PVC) of South Africa to Dr Tony Facui and others.

“South Africa is going to receive a fraction of the vaccines it needs to bring the pandemic under control in the next month. Over the next few months, expected deliveries will not be enough to vaccinate everyone who needs a vaccine, which will tear asunder the targets the government has announced, demoralising front line workers. Put simply, if nothing significantly changes, the COVID-19 epidemic will continue to ravage our country and other countries, virtually unabated, for the foreseeable future.”

The world now faces the very real possibility of not achieving global population immunity anytime soon – with a situation where more variants and strains will continue to emerge. It is clear we have no time to waste, as we understand that the longer it takes to vaccinate the entire world, the harder it will become to contain the virus. 

The PVC has requested the urgent intervention of the US government, as a co-developer and co-owner of the ‘NIH-Moderna’ vaccine.

“We therefore implore you – enforce your rights in this instance and ensure that Moderna and other companies supported by the US government abide by its obligations,” Makgoba said. “Your actions will undoubtedly help to save millions of lives in our country and elsewhere in the global South.”

For more information on the vaccine rollout, listen to Prof Helen Schneider’s comments here.

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