Johannesburg, Jan 3 (PTI) South Africa plans to vaccinate about 40 million of its citizens with the COVID-19 vaccine in a phased rollout this year, with healthcare workers being first in line, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Sunday.
Mkhize was briefing the nation on the latest developments, together with leading advisers on the pandemic, amid growing concern about daily huge spikes in infections due to a new variant of the coronavirus.
'The only way of being able to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic is the provision of immunity through vaccination. We have been trying to follow what the best way is to deal with this. The vaccines will need to be made available quickly so that most of our citizens are covered by the end of the first year of rollout - this year.
“We knew early on that the only way to fight COVID-19 would be to achieve herd immunity through vaccination,” the minister said.
The priorities after healthcare workers would be the elderly and those with comorbidities, and people in overcrowded settings such as prisons, shelters and care homes.
Next in line would be people working in the hospitality and tourism industry; educational institutions; and essential workers, including police officers, miners, and those in the security, retail food industry, funeral, travel, and banking industries; as well as essential municipal and government services, all designed to address the crisis with as little harm to the economy as possible.
Mkhize also reacted to growing criticism that the South African government had been slow in securing the vaccines, among others due to late payment in the Covax partnership.
The minister said government had set up structures to speed up financing, sourcing and procurement of the vaccines, with negotiations ongoing to try to get them earlier than the second quarter of this year, as had been originally planned.
A three-pronged approach would be used that involved the government’s Solidarity Fund, as well as support from the private sector and medical aid schemes, Mkhize said.
“We are very mindful of the urgency. We all have a personal anxiety. We want to know at which point we can say that we are safe from this pandemic. We are in bilateral talks to see how we can get the vaccine here faster, perhaps by February,” Mkhize said.
“We have (also) embarked on Public-Private Partnerships with very good outcomes and we have approached medical aids to be part of the co-financing.
“The process is now at a stage where the Council for Medical Schemes has engaged various medical schemes and I have signed amendments of regulations to allow for vaccines and other therapeutics to be part of the prescribed minimum benefits,” Mkhize said.
South Africa is one of the 200-countries who have joined the WHO initiative called Covax, to secure vaccines for countries less able to afford them than the economically-stronger countries, who have been snapping up the first supplies of approved vaccines and started administering them already this week.
Ministerial Advisory committee member Barry Schoub explained the 67 per cent population vaccinations as an attempt to slow down the rate of infection through herd immunity.
“Herd immunity is basically the threshold of the amount of people needed in a population to achieve immunity toward the virus. We have calculated the 67 per cent based on the reproductive rate of the virus,” said Schoub, who added that negotiations were underway with pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Moderna AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
He said there have also been discussions with Russia and China about vaccines manufactured there locally.
South Africa is currently in its second wave of the pandemic, exacerbated by the festive season holidays, despite almost all its major cities being declared hotspots with higher lockdown regulations, including a ban on gatherings and closure of beaches.
Even as Mkhize and his team spoke, 288 more COVID-19 related deaths were reported overnight, taking the total so far to 29,175 deaths.
The number of cases grew rapidly in the past week from under a million since the start of the lockdown in March to almost 1.09 million. PTI FH CPS