Ramaphosa and Mkhize in tussle over Covid-19 vaccines

Dr Zweli Mkhize, deputy President David Mabuza and President Cyril Ramaphosa taking delivery of the one million AstraZeneca vaccines. File picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Dr Zweli Mkhize, deputy President David Mabuza and President Cyril Ramaphosa taking delivery of the one million AstraZeneca vaccines. File picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Published Feb 14, 2021


Johannesburg - President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize allegedly tussled behind the scenes over where to procure which jabs, resulting in the country's vaccine rollout programme being negatively affected and the procurement process being delayed.

Sources say Mkhize preferred Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine while Ramaphosa and some members of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, allegedly rallied against the Russians in favour of the Johnson & Johnson shots, the American multinational pharmaceutical company.

The differences happened at the height of the country's second wave as the Covid-19 cases breached the one million mark while the death rate exceeded 40 000.

Sputnik, which some media houses tried to ridicule as unsafe, has produced over 1.2-billion doses and has received orders from 15 countries around the world, including two in Africa.

A bureaucrat close to Mkhize has alleged that Ramaphosa has been “treating the health minister like a small child.”

“Ramaphosa has no respect for Zweli, he treats him like a small child. When the pandemic broke out, the Chinese government approached the minister with a donation of over a million Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), but the president stopped that donation because it was going to make Mkhize shine," the bureaucrat said.

“But the final nail that Ramaphosa hammered into Mkhize’s coffin was when he appointed Deputy President David Mabuza to lead the inter-ministerial committee that will oversee everything related to the Covid-19 vaccine. The minister was supposed to chair this committee, but he was snubbed. And now, they are doing it with the purchase of vaccines, ordering what they want and not what the health minister prefers and think is good for South Africans.”

But two officials in Ramaphosa’s camp say the president has shown true leadership by taking unpopular drastic steps in times of crisis.

“The president has no time to nurse people’s feelings, but to decide how to save South Africans from dying from this virus. There is no time to debate which vaccine comes from where but time to decide on which one is available and can save lives.” said one official.

Another official accused Mkhize of using his position as health minister to elevate his political ambitions instead of saving the country.

“We all know Zweli has ambitions to be the next president, and he is using every opportunity he gets to campaign instead of looking for vaccines to save lives. Hence, the president stopped him in his tracks. He wasn’t snubbed, but redirected to do his job as a government minister.”

Department of Health spokesperson Lwazi Manzi yesterday could only confirm that the department had discussions with Russian ambassador Ilya Rogachev over Sputnik, which has been shown to be 91.4% effective by research.

"We started discussions the moment they announced their intention to develop and trial a candidate. Sputnik must also do some further work in relation to its Ad5 component (Adenovirus that is believed to increase the risk for HIV-infected men) and the risks for us – with a large population of people living with HIV - and still need to test their vaccine against the 501Y.V2 variant. We have not placed any orders yet as we await further information," Manzi said.

But those in favour of Sputnik have questioned the rationale around the cautious approach to the Russian vaccine, arguing that the majority will benefit from it.

"It is true that 7.7-million people are living with HIV. HIV prevalence amongst the general population is 20.4% but what about the remaining 76.6% of South Africans, why can't they be safely vaccinated with Sputnik?" One of the officials asked.

Another official added that the South African government's claim that it's in talks with Rogachev wasn't true.

"Neither Russian embassy's official accounts on social media nor Sputnik official accounts are saying anything about the negotiations," the official said.

The Russian embassy couldn't be reached for comment.

The third official said a decision was made for the government to order the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the benefit of South African pharmaceutical company, Aspen, one of the donors to the CR17 campaign, the vehicle used to win Ramaphosa the ANC presidency and later the highest office.

But Aspen senior executive Stavros Nicolaou on Friday dismissed allegations that his company was chosen to be the J & J manufacturer in South Africa as a payback for his role and donation to the CR17 campaign.

"Aspen is one of seven contract manufacturers that J & J have commissioned around the world to manufacture their candidate COVID vaccine. Aspen's intended role is purely that of a contract manufacturer and it does not tender, distribute, contract, sell or commercialise the vaccine to either the private or public sectors in SA or elsewhere. Aspen is neither an agent nor distributor of J & J."

The Sunday Independent exposed Nicolaou in 2019 as the man who organised influential Greek nationals and business people to a gala dinner with Ramaphosa where funds were pledged for his R1-billion presidential campaign.

Nicolaou proudly confirmed at the time that his company "donated money to the ANC" and that he personally donated R150 000 to Ramaphosa's campaign.

Aspen's donation to the CR17 campaign was part of the company's "contribution towards building a non-racial, non-sexist society, he said at the time.

Nicolaou said he saw nothing wrong with the J & J deal as "the South African government has not placed any J & J covid vaccine orders from Aspen."

Nicolaou also denied media reports that he has Mkhize on "speed dial."

"It is true that at the outbreak of the pandemic, organised business arranged itself into the now well-known Business for SA (B4SA) platform and I was the chair of the B4SA health stream. The platform's purpose was to organise the private health sector to assist, support and complement the government. I frequently spoke with Minister Mkhize. My relationship with Minister Mkhize is purely a professional one."

Mkhize is the former treasurer-general of the ruling party, ANC, and Aspen has been one of the companies that admitted to having made donations to the party. But this week, Nicolaou changed his tune about the donations and claimed that Aspen "hasn't and will not contribute to any political party or election campaign."

"We did not contribute to the ANC during the time that Minister Mkhize was the Treasurer General of the ANC," he said.

Nicolaou claims that Aspen wasn't Ramaphosa's favourite company as they weren't showered with government tenders since he took over as the president.

But the three officials we spoke to were adamant that Aspen was positioned into the deal "with help from the top."

"Someone opened the doors for Aspen; they are getting everything on a silver platter with help from the top," one official said.

EFF spokesperson Vuyani Pambo yesterday said South Africa has now reached payback time as those who funded the CR17 campaign are being rewarded with government tenders and projects worth millions of rands.

“We are actually at the payback time, two business people who donated to the CR17 campaign are tipped to benefit immensely from the government orders of the covid-19 vaccines.

“There is no justification, whatsoever, in all the vaccines that have been ordered by our government. South African journalists have failed to hold Ramaphosa accountable to anything. The spread of the pandemic in this country is pin on everyone but Cyril.”

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, who is a co-chair on South Africa's Covid-19 advisory committee and is alleged to be running the anti-Sputnik campaign, on Saturday refused to answer questions saying he doesn't do interviews on weekends. "Speak to me on Monday," he said.

Professor Glenda Gray, a co-lead investigator for the vaccine's local clinical trial and president and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), on Saturday admitted that she doesn't know much about Sputnik.

She added that they conducted ensemble clinical trial data of Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine and reported their results at the end of January.

She denied that they are biased in their profession, saying all their work is monitored by an international independent safety data monitoring board that evaluates all their work.

"We are not paid or influenced to favour one company over the other," she said.

She confirmed that the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine expected to be rolled out to frontline healthcare workers in South Africa this week is yet to be approved by South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).

The American pharmaceutical giant's vaccine is also not yet approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as it only made its application for emergency use authorisation of its Covid-19 vaccine last week.

SAHPRA spokesperson Yuven Gounden yesterday confirmed that the process of approving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine wasn't yet finalised.

"The registration is still in place and I am not sure how far is the process at this stage," he said.

He added that SAHPRA will prioritise the approval of all Covid-19 products in order to save lives.

Another senior government official, who asked not to be named, has accused certain politicians and state employees of being Johnson & Johnson vaccine self-appointed marketing representatives.

"Before even this vaccine is approved, it has been promoted and marketed widely in South Africa by certain politicians and government officials. There are so many vaccines out there but this one is on everybody's lips as soon as they appear on TV or doing radio interviews," the official said.

Manzi yesterday said Johnson & Johnson has done its third trial for their vaccine and was now applying for emergency use authorisation.

"The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 57% effective against the 501Y.V2 variant and over 80% against the original ," Manzi said.

She added that the government has secured 9-million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at $10 a dose.

"And as the president announced we are in discussion to get further 20 million from doses from Johnson & Johnson," she added.

DA shadow minister of health, Siviwe Gwarube, in a statement, said the government must ensure that various vaccines which have a high efficacy rate against the 501.V2 variant go through the necessary approvals by our regulatory body, SAHPRA and diversify the acquisition fishing net to ensure that various vaccines are tested against the new variant, as opposed to relying only on a specific vaccine at any given time.

The Sunday Independent