Late on 1 February, on the day when the first 1mn Covid-19 vaccines had arrived in the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa was able to deliver somewhat better news around the vaccine rollout. Around 40mn-50mn vaccine doses now seem to be in the pipeline (which could represent a significant portion of the target required). The arrival of the first batch of vaccines coincides with improved infection rates, which allowed the president to announce a slight easing of lockdown restrictions.
The second Covid-19 wave is considered to have peaked, as daily average new infections have roughly halved over the last seven days, to about 5,500 cases. As a result, Ramaphosa announced a slight easing of lockdown restrictions, though he did not reduce the overall risk level from the current ‘adjusted Level 3’. This will include shortened night-time curfew hours, allow for limited social gatherings, and ease the controversial ban on alcohol sales. Mask wearing and other health precautions remain compulsory.
While the government’s slow vaccine procurement has attracted strong criticism, the overall headline figure of vaccines contracted to date now seems to amount to about 42mn vaccine doses. This means a significant portion of the required doses might now be lined up in pursuit of the government’s (ambitious) target of vaccinating 40mn residents this year. According to Ramaphosa’s latest address, the vaccine pipeline now includes:
- Oxford/AstraZeneca – 1.5mn vaccine doses (1mn arrived on 1 February, another 500,000 doses are expected later this month)
- COVAX initiative – 12mn doses (2mn to arrive in March)
- Johnson & Johnson – 9mn doses (starting Q2)
- Pfizer/BioNTech – 20mn doses (starting Q2)
In addition to these vaccine amounts, South Africa also expects a country allocation from the African Union (AU)’s African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) vaccine pool, which Ramaphosa chaired and which has secured a pool of about 300mn doses which are to be distributed on a population-size basis. Ramaphosa previously indicated that South Africa would be allocated about 12mn doses from AVATT, though only about 2mn are expected to be delivered between March and June.
The government’s implementation of Phase One of the vaccine rollout, which is expected to commence in the next couple of weeks and will target about 1.25mn medical workers, will serve as a test case for the broader distribution effort that will ramp up over the coming months. Official handling of the vaccination campaign will be closely scrutinized, including acquisition, pricing, and distribution, given the government’s centralized approach. For the wider rollout of Phase Two (which will target essential workers, over 60s, those with comorbidities and those in institutions) and Phase Three (targeting the remaining adult population), private sector participation will be crucial, both in terms of vaccine logistics but also funding. Other uncertainties include vaccine hesitancy, but also questions surrounding the efficacy of vaccines in the context of the current strain – 501Y.v2 – and future strains.