SA to miss March target of 1.5 million vaccinations due to shortage of Covid-19 shots

Deputy Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla gets the Covid-19 vaccine at Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Deputy Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla gets the Covid-19 vaccine at Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 5, 2021


Monique Vanek, Janice Kew, Paul Vecchiatto

South Africa is likely to miss its target of inoculating as many as 1.5 million people against the coronavirus by the end of this month because sufficient shots aren't available, Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.

The country began dispensing Johnson & Johnson vaccines on February 17 as part of a clinical trial that enabled it to bypass normal regulatory procedures.

While the government has secured 11 million of the single-dose J&J shots, 20 million vaccines from Pfizer and additional supplies through the Covax facility and the African Union, they aren't due to arrive as soon as the government had hoped.

"We expect now only to complete 700 000 vaccines by the end of March," Phaahla said in an online briefing to lawmakers on Friday. "We are expecting more Johnson & Johnson vaccines and some from Pfizer, but we will still be behind target. However, we hope to be back on track once production of the various vaccines ramps up."

Vaccine shortages are a global issue, and are particularly acute across Africa, because wealthy nations pre-paid to secure early deliveries.

South Africa has inoculated about 92 000 people so far, and aims to reach two-thirds of its population of 60 million by year-end. It pivoted to using the J&J shots after a small study indicated that a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford has little impact on mild infections with a variant of the virus that's most dominant in South Africa. Once additional shots become available, the government aims to administer as many as 250 000 a day.

The inoculation of health-care workers should be completed around mid-April, while others in high-risk categories are due to begin receiving shots in May, Anban Pillay, a deputy director-general in the health department said in a separate online briefing. Vaccines will be dispensed through mobile units, pharmacies and workplaces as dispensing steps up, he said.

"The pace at what we are vaccinating now is at the pace of what can be allowed in terms of the study," Pillay said. "Once we get out of the study we can open up many more sites and things can move much faster."

Stavros Nicolaou, head of the health-work unit at lobbying group Business for South Africa, said sufficient vaccines had been secured to cover 6 million people by the end of June, but as many as 8 million are needed for essential workers and the most vulnerable.

"We are all in talks, with government, on how to get more vaccines in quarter two," he said. "We need to close the gap as much as we can before the dreaded third wave, before Easter holidays when people move around, and before winter."

Glenda Gray, the president of the South African Medical Research Council who is overseeing the J&J vaccine study, said systems were being continually improved and the initial roll out had provided insights into how best to scale up the program. The J&J and Pfizer shots are likely to be approved for general usage soon, she said.

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