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Masiyiwa’s arduous journey to procure Covid-19 vaccines for Africa

Strive Masiyiwa. Photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

Strive Masiyiwa. Photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Oct 18, 2021


Strive Masiyiwa. Photo: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

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Teachers wait to be vaccinated in Pinelands, Cape Town. Photo: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Vaccine hesitancy is doing arguably the greatest injustice to the African Union’s (AU’s) hard work that was led by Strive Masiyiwa, the continental body’s special envoy dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.

Masiyiwa, the AU envoy tasked with securing vaccines for the continent, recently chronicled Africa's struggle to secure jabs for its 1.3 billion people when he worked closely with President Cyril Ramaphosa to make sure the continent had a seat on the table on the global vaccine acquisition and distribution plans.

He recently told the Nation Brand Forum 2021 that he was appointed last year when Ramaphosa was chairperson of the AU and when he convened the Presidents’ Bureau, a grouping of 10 heads of state heading regional organisations.

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The businessman slammed the conspiracy theories when he urged South Africans to get vaccinated, as a sign of their appreciation for the hard work that had been put into ensuring that they get the life-saving jabs.

"This vaccine hesitancy must be defeated, and industry must take the forefront. That is the role of Brand South Africa," said Masiyiwa

"If we do not open up the vaccination, the size, the tragic loss of life which is associated with this disease, of which South Africa has got a disproportionate amount of Africans that have died in South Africa than anywhere else from this pandemic, the effect on the economy, the lockdowns, tourism, the isolation because of this red zoning and all this, can only now be ended by the vaccine.

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"So, if there's nothing else you can do as industrialists today, is just get out there this weekend and get some people to vaccinate. Let's use the vaccines that are available. They have been approved by the WHO. They took billions of dollars, which we don't have, to produce," he said.

He narrated the sleeplessness his team and President Ramaphosa had spent fighting for South Africa and the continent to get their share of the vaccine.

"Let me tell you, I can tell you, calls at midnight, all these things going on as we battled to get Pfizer, to get Johnson and Johnson, to get you vaccines. So please, I urge you, there is nothing wrong with vaccines. This is just science, we've been taking vaccines forever."

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The masterstroke to bring Masiyiwa on board started in June last year when Ramaphosa, in his capacity as chairperson of the Bureau, suggested to the heads of states that a special task force of special envoys be established to prepare the continent for the pandemic.

Masiyiwa was appointed special envoy to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, with special focus on the supply chain, under which the vaccines would be bought and delivered for the continent.

Said Masiyiwa: "By August, last year, we had a pretty good idea, based on the science coming out of the Africa Centre for Disease Control, that the possibility of a success on the vaccine front was getting stronger. As the trial results were coming through, the Bureau of presidents was meeting regularly with the task force members. And the scientists recommended to the heads of state in August last year that to contain this virus, we would need to target at least 60% of Africa's population through vaccination.

"So, we would need to vaccinate 60% of our people, which is roughly about 800 million people in a continent of 1.3 billion. This was the science and the heads of state endorsed this position in August last year. And it was then communicated to all 55 member states (including the Caribbean region) with their request that they positioned themselves and prepared to vaccinate 60% of their population."

Further, the heads of state agreed to a special committee, independent of the envoys. Masiyiwa was asked to coordinate it, with Ramaphosa as the chairperson.

The special committee was named the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), not to be confused with the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), a special purpose vehicle set up to buy vaccines.

The target for vaccination was revised to 70% (or 900 million people) as it became clearer what the impact of the coronavirus would be on the continent. This target was set in August last year.

Masiyiwa said there were two types of vaccines administered in the continent- the double dose, Pfizer, and the single dose, Johnson & Johnson.

To get 70% of the African population vaccinated, this would translate to 1.8 billion doses, or 900 million single doses. But by the time they met in August 2020 to endorse Africa's position, the WHO and the Global Alliance for Vaccines (GAVI), with the support of the rich nations, had set up Covax. The idea was that when vaccine production begins, and it would be clear that there were not enough vaccines, all nations must agree to share.

"Africa obviously endorsed the idea, we were very happy that we would get 20% vaccines from this initiative," said Masiyiwa.

But a rude awakening awaited the continent.

"As soon as we agreed in August to pursue our target, we met with Covax. And Covax told us they could only do 20%. We told them that we were looking for at least 60% of our population. And they said, ’Well, you have to find that money and do that yourselves’ said Masiyiwa, who immediately reported back to Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa suggested that they get donors to at least "agree to a 50/50 arrangement where we will do 50% of the vaccines and they find the other 50%".

This led to a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron. Thereafter, Macron met with the Bureau of presidents on two occasions.

Macron came back and informed them that the donors were prepared to donate only 27%, with plans to add another 3% down the road though dose sharing.

"As Africa now had to focus our attention on getting the remainder of the vaccines," said Masiyiwa.

By November/December last year, the target was to buy enough vaccines for 400 million people, now revised to 450 million. The first vaccines had begun to come through.

The next step was to meet all the major suppliers who had vaccines available at the time and would be available between December last year and April 2021. They met AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, Moderna, Sinopharm, Sinovak, and Sputnik of Russia.

"Then we got the big shock of our lives. They said there were no vaccines available for 2021. One supplier offered us 500,000. For the period between December to June, we were looking at about 1.8 to 2 million doses for a continent of 1.3. billion.

"Governments were absolutely panicking. Heads of states were calling suppliers directly themselves. People just couldn't believe that there were no vaccines. All the suppliers had pre-sold their available capacity," revealed Masiyiwa.

More shocks awaited Africa.

"They were saying to us when vaccines become available, we want payment upfront. In fact, they were taking orders in December for delivery in 2022 with upfront payments."

Added Masiyiwa: "How do you buy vaccines for so many member states? We are not the EU, we have no balance sheet as Africa, as the AU. And many of the member states were scrambling because they didn't have money in their budgets to actually buy vaccines."

Further, "vaccine manufacturers also demanded a no-fault compensation scheme, an insurance scheme to guarantee them that if there was any comeback on their vaccines, we would be the ones covering the insurance."

After meeting with Macron and the Bureau of presidents in December, the Covax leadership made a presentation in January, where they would deliver 750 million doses by December 2021.

But when Masiyiwa was in Geneva last month, they confirmed that they had only delivered 71 million doses, less than 10% of that target.

"There was an absolute no show by Covax and by the donors," said Masiyiwa.

Faced with no vaccines and no money in December, Ramaphosa called a number of meetings to find solutions.

Ramaphosa then called Masiyiwa to inform him that he had met the CEO of Aspen, who had come to tell him that they had been given a contract by Johnson and Johnson to produce vaccines in South Africa. Ramaphosa wanted to know why those vaccines were not available for Africa to buy.

Ramaphosa then phoned the chairman of Johnson and Johnson in the United States.

When Ramaphosa asked them to sell the vaccines to Africa, they said they had already sold them. "President said I don't care, then you can't produce them in South Africa. I'm not gonna go into too much detail, but the president was incredibly effective."

Ramaphosa’s hard stance intervention was a turning point for Africa.

"So really, this led for the first time to Africa having access to vaccines, the facility at Aspen could produce 250 million doses. And we zeroed in on that. South Africa would take 31 million doses, and the rest of the doses would go to the rest of the continent," said Masiyiwa.

Ncube is the founder of Zambezi News.