During its latest fortnightly Covid-19 meeting where the Portfolio Committee on Health was updated by the Department of Health on vaccination, the department assured the committee that it was still on track to meet its target of vaccinating the entire adult population over a period of 12 months, despite disruptions which threatened to delay the vaccination process.

The department’s Director-General, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, said: “We are still on track with regard to the time frames, there have been delays but we haven’t lost the original time frames.”

He said negotiation and procurement processes are complete for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 31 million vaccines were ready and currently undergoing safety and serenity checks.

Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, told the committee that the department hoped to finish vaccinating all the healthcare workers by the end of April 2021 and move to the next phase. “We got disrupted from the original plan because of the AstraZeneca that we couldn’t use because of low effectiveness against the new variant – that is why we could not meet the targeted number, and other delays were due to contractual issues with Pfizer, which had to do with technicalities of negotiating,” said the Minister.

He also appealed to the public to continue adhering to safety regulations such as wearing a mask and social distancing, until population immunity has been achieved.

He said the government was also in a process of establishing a no-fault compensation fund, a requirement from vaccine manufacturers to cover against any adverse outcome of the vaccination process.

Minister Mkhize assured the committee that by the time the vaccine comes here, there will be protection for everyone through the medico-legal cover.

Responding to criticism from some committee Members that the government was unfairly excluding vaccines from other countries in favour of American and European manufactured vaccines, Minister Mkhize told the committee that government was considering various vaccines from a number of manufacturers across the globe. “We have received vaccine offers from China. We have not rejected, negotiations will continue, subject to registration.

“The Sputnik vaccine (from Russia) is undergoing registration with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), and with the Ivermectin there is no conclusive information that it can be used in South Africa,” Dr Mkhize said.

The department also reported that the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines were awaiting approval from SAHPRA and additional clinical data.

The question of the expiry date of vaccines was downplayed by the Minister when he said it was “as issue of scientific analysis and gets adjusted by regulators”.

Asked by Members of the committee about the new variant identified in Tanzania and how the government was responding to that and handling travellers from that country, Dr Mkhize said South Africa was working with the Africa Centre for Disease Control for the new variant which he said was first discovered in Angola.

The committee has urged the department to accelerate the rollout and ensure contingency plans for any further possible delays. The committee has welcomed changes to the Ministerial Advisory Council (MAC) on Covid-19, and congratulated the new Co-Chairperson, Prof Koleka Mlisana, after Prof Salim Karim stepped down.

The department has recommended that South African officials posted abroad, especially those whose countries of accreditation are unable to offer the vaccines, such as the 362 South African diplomats and families posted on the African continent, be considered for vaccination in South Africa.

Foreign diplomats and International organisations resident in South Africa and their families will also be accommodated, not on a priority basis, but in accordance with the South African Vaccine Rollout Strategy.

By Sakhile Mokoena
1 April 2021