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As Israel vaccinates, South Africa negotiates

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While countries like Israel have already vaccinated many of its people, South Africa is still negotiating the procurement of vaccines in the battle against COVID-19.

The vaccine rollout is already in its second phase in Israel after a three week-long inoculation drive. More than 20% of the population has had its first shot of the vaccine (the highest percentage globally) and all Israelis could be immunised by Pesach, according to the Times of Israel.

South Africa is way behind, although the government plans to vaccinate two-thirds of the population by the end of 2021. The delay has drawn criticism from many corners, accusing the government and the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on COVID-19 vaccines of being too slow to act.

“The initial negotiations utilised the pool procurement mechanisms of COVAX,” Barry Schoub, professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and MAC chairperson, told the SA Jewish Report last week.

“We signed up for the vaccine for about 10% of the population. COVAX does the purchasing of the vaccine and tells us when to expect it, which is either at the end of the first quarter or into the second quarter of this year,” Schoub said.

In addition, South Africa also entered into bilateral agreements with vaccine manufacturers directly.

“The first tranche of a million AstraZeneca Oxford vaccinations are expected this month. They are being provided by the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, and a further half million are expected in February,” said Schoub.

“This first tranche is a limited, emergency supply, essentially for use by our healthcare workers only.” Those who fall into this category will be further divided into subcategories, depending on how exposed they are to COVID-19 patients and other risk factors.”

The next phase targets a greater portion of the population, but is still limited to key personnel like security workers, retail workers, teachers, and other essential workers, according to Schoub. Additionally, people who live in congregate environments (such as prisons and institutions) fall into this phase, as do people who are 60 or older, or older than 18 with co-morbidities.

“The last tranche targets the rest of the population at a time when we’re trying to achieve universal immunisation for as many people as possible,” said Schoub. “That will come later on.

“There are ongoing negotiations involving the medical aid industry as well as the business sector to secure the funding needed for the additional vaccines for the entire population. Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has committed to getting two-thirds of the population (more than 40 million people in total) immunised by the end of the year,” Schoub said.

“It’s a massive challenge, but the minister seems confident. It means administering almost 300 000 vaccines a day, so we’ll need to mount a huge campaign if we’re to do it.”

Schoub was at pains to rectify his misquoted statement regarding the efficacy of vaccines against the virus after it was said that he didn’t believe a vaccine would work.

“I wrote in Daily Maverick that the vaccine isn’t a magic wand that will make the virus disappear immediately,” he said. “It will take time, but it will work. In the meantime, it’s imperative that we carry out the standard health precautions meticulously. They are the only tools we have to control the infection.

“Even when South Africa has the vaccine, a lot will depend on our behaviour.”

Schoub responded to the recent letter published by medical professionals in South Africa accusing government of bungling vaccine procurement. “Our colleagues ignore the fact that negotiations are underway and may have an agenda in going on the rampage to criticise. If you look at the epidemic, it has three consequences: conspiracy theories, miracle drugs, and the blame game.

“Unfortunately, the blame game is taken up by scientists, and is undermining public trust.”

On BBC’s HardTalk, Schoub said he blamed the system for any issues that have arisen in securing vaccines. “Vaccines shouldn’t be treated as a commodity. When profit drives the purchase of a vaccine, it’s a problem. Thirteen percent of the global population has bought up 51% of the production of vaccines.

“We aren’t a wealthy country, but a middle-income country with severe economic woes. We had a choice to put down R2.4 billion during trials on vaccines we didn’t know would work or not. High-income countries could afford to do that. Our advisory did recommend negotiating, but for whatever reason, the government couldn’t afford the deposit and the risk.”

Discovery founder and chief executive Adrian Gore told the SA Jewish Report that he felt positive about the government’s vaccine-procurement programme. Gore has been involved in the programme at government level, chairing a team tasked with securing funding and arranging the logistics of vaccine distribution.

“There has been a considerable amount of work done by government and business over the past two months to ensure funding is secure, that vaccines are accessed and procured, and a lot of work is going into distribution,” he said.

“The last speech by the president outlined a schedule, and if we can meet it, we should make good progress. Healthcare workers will receive the vaccine in the next couple of weeks and a lot more doses are in the pipeline.”

He said Discovery was doing whatever it could to help the government progress effectively, and felt confident in the progress made so far.

As far as matters in Israel are concerned, spirits are high as the vaccine rollout forges ahead.

“It feels almost festive in Israel right now,” said Ilan Ossendryver, a South African photographer currently in Israel. “In spite of being in another lockdown, there are banners flying everywhere and people are excited to be getting vaccinated, taking selfies with signs that say, ‘I got vaccinated’. It’s amazing.”

The holder of an Israeli passport, Ossendryver received a vaccination last Sunday after contacting Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv to find out if he was eligible for the shot.

“I had a booking within 20 minutes,” he said. “I don’t have Israeli medical aid, but they gave me a time and I joined hundreds of other people on Sunday afternoon and had the shot within 10 minutes. They had me wait 15 minutes to check for side-effects before letting me go, and I’ll get the second dose later this month.

“It feels incredible to think that you’re carrying something that could help save you from getting sick. Nothing is certain, but you know you’re a step ahead.”

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