South Africa in African Union talks on COVID-19 shots for 10 million people

·2 min read
FILE PHOTO: Vials labelled "COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" are placed on dry ice in this illustration

By Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa is negotiating with an African Union (AU) platform to buy COVID-19 vaccines for at least 10 million of its people, a senior health official said on Friday.

The country was provisionally allocated 12 million doses developed by AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in an AU vaccine plan, but it was unclear how many vaccines it would seek to buy after it halted plans to use the AstraZeneca shot.

Sandile Buthelezi, Department of Health director-general, did not say which vaccines the country would order via the AU in comments to parliament.

South Africa has reported the most infections and deaths on the African continent, and suffered a severe second wave of cases driven by a more contagious variant of the coronavirus.

Like other African countries, it has lagged wealthier parts of the world in immunisations. So far, it has administered some 90,000 doses of J&J's shot in a research study targeting up to 500,000 healthcare workers.

The government put AstraZeneca vaccinations on hold last month because a small local trial showed the drugmaker's vaccine offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness caused by the 501Y.V2 variant.

Buthelezi said on Friday that South Africa was trying to reach an agreement with the AU, Afreximbank and the Serum Institute of India to sell AstraZeneca doses it had ordered from Serum to about 18 other African countries.

Explaining why it had not yet received doses from the COVAX vaccine scheme co-led by the World Health Organization, Buthelezi said: "Their allocation was heavily biased towards AstraZeneca ... Then we told them 'hold on guys, we can't take the AstraZeneca as is, for now let's consider other vaccines, either the Pfizer or the Johnson & Johnson,' hence the delay."

South Africa is expecting to receive 117,000 Pfizer doses this month via COVAX.

Stavros Nicolaou, an executive at local pharmaceutical company Aspen which will be making J&J doses, said the country faced big challenges in its vaccination campaign.

South Africa is only due to receive vaccines for around 6 million people by the end of the second quarter, he said, as it heads into winter and a third wave of infections is expected.

It will also have to scale up daily vaccinations from around 5,000 in the J&J study to around 250,000 to hit its target of immunising 40 million people, or two-thirds of the population, over the next year, Nicolaou added.

(Reporting by Alexander Winning in Johannesburg and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Editing by Promit Mukherjee, Barbara Lewis and Gareth Jones)