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SA going for COVAX vaccine scheme for 10% of population

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The director of affordable medicines at the health ministry says the facility will give the country an early batch of vaccines with which to start protecting people.

File picture: Al-hadji Kudra Maliro/AP

By Alexander Winning

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa is going with the COVAX global Covid-19 vaccine distribution scheme, with a committed purchase for 10% of its population of 58 million, a senior health official said on Tuesday.

Khadija Jamaloodien, director of affordable medicines at the health ministry, told Reuters that South Africa had not yet signed the commitment agreement to participate in COVAX but would do so once officials had completed the necessary administrative processes.

She said the facility would give the country an early batch of vaccines with which to start protecting people.

“We have to be strategic about how we do this, because the intention is to cover a larger proportion of the population,” she said.

“Initially the strategy is to protect the vulnerable,the vulnerable includes our health care workers and then those which we will identify as priority groups.”

The decision followed earlier advice from a group of experts.

The government has publicly expressed support for COVAX, but it had yet to say how much of the population it would seek to cover via the facility co-led by the World Health Organization, and whether it would go for the committed, rather than optional, purchase arrangement.

South Africa will make a R500 million (or $33 million) payment to help fund production of vaccines that will be made available via the facility, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said earlier on Tuesday.

Mboweni said at a conference that a further R4.5 billion could be necessary to procure vaccines in future, without specifying how it would be spent.

The government is trying to keep its options open while it assesses which vaccine will be most effective locally and most affordable.

As an upper middle income country, South Africa does not qualify for subsidised vaccines under COVAX, unlike many other African countries.

But health campaigners say countries in this bracket also lack the diplomatic weight to shape the scheme to their advantage, unlike rich nations paying bigger sums, leaving them at a double disadvantage.

South Africa had to weigh the benefits of signing up to the scheme versus agreeing bilateral deals with major pharmaceutical companies, or waiting to see which vaccines proved the most effective in late-stage clinical trials, an official close to the government’s vaccine discussions told Reuters.

The country has recorded the most coronavirus infections on the African continent, with more than 760,000 confirmed cases and more than 20,000 deaths to date.

It imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in March to contain the virus,compounding pre-existing economic woes.