Africa left with few options for vaccines, as Pfizer offers to supply health care workers

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Africa has few options to procure Covid-19 vaccines as the outbreak of the disease worsens across many parts of the continent, South Africa’s presidency has said.

Pfizer and BioNTech have offered to supply Africa with 50 million Covid-19 vaccines for health workers between March and the end of this year, the presidency said in a response to Bloomberg queries on Sunday. Moderna has no supplies for Africa, while AstraZeneca has no shots for the continent in 2021 and has directed the African Union to negotiate with the Serum Institute of India, which is making the vaccine on behalf of AstraZeneca. President Cyril Ramaphosa is the African Union’s chairman.

Ramaphosa’s response comes after days of withering criticism over the country’s vaccine strategy from health leaders, labour unions and opposition parties. Even though four vaccine trials are underway in the country, South Africa has only arranged to purchase enough shots for 10% of its population of 60 million people through the Covax initiative, which is designed to ensure equitable access to the vaccines. These are likely to begin arriving in the second quarter. Some African countries have their own plans for vaccine procurement. Most do not.

“We are working hard in South Africa and on the continent to protect our people against Covid-19,” the presidency said.

The furore comes as South Africa posts record numbers of infections and deaths and neighbouring Zimbabwe enters a strict 30-day lockdown. The South African economy likely contracted the most in nine decades last year, according to official estimates.

‘Prohibitive’ Cost

The cost of Pfizer’s vaccines are “prohibitive,” the presidency said. Discussions are taking place with Johnson & Johnson, which is conducting a trial in South Africa and plans to make 300 million doses a year at a factory in the country owned by Aspen Pharmacare Holdings when the shot is approved.

J&J “has not clarified whether Africa will benefit from vaccines manufactured in South Africa,” the presidency said. “We still have to negotiate the price that is affordable to Africa.”

South Africa is holding direct talks with vaccine suppliers including J&J, AstraZeneca and Pfizer over vaccine supplies for the country, the presidency said. South Africa’s health products regulator is using a so-called rolling review, which allows it to assess vaccine data as it becomes available during the trials to assess J&J’s shot. It will do the same with AstraZeneca and Pfizer when they apply.

While at least 29 countries, from Mexico to Germany, have begun inoculating their populations against the virus, South Africa has yet to conclude any supply agreements with pharmaceutical companies.

An opinion piece published in the Daily Maverick and signed by senior members of the Progressive Health Forum, which includes the heads of medical associations and academics, called for Ramaphosa to fire health department officials for their failure to secure vaccine supplies.

“As a health care worker with friends and colleagues in the frontline and knowing health care workers who have contracted Covid-19 and died doing their duty, we are obliged to try hasten access to the vaccine so they can do their job,” said Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council and a member of the forum, in a response to queries.

South Africa, with over 1.09 million confirmed Covid-19 infections and 29 175 deaths, is the worst hit country on the African continent. 

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