Johannesburg - Much as South Africa joins President Cyril Ramaphosa in welcoming the first consignment of the Covid-19 vaccines, it must be noted the country’s vaccination targets are not quite within reach.
As South Africa is the only African member of the BRICS community, questions have been raised about why procurement of vaccines from member states such as China and Russia were not mentioned in the president’s speech recently.
In his most recent address to the nation, Ramaphosa said in addition to the 1 million Covishield doses that were received another 500 000 doses from the Serum Institute of India were expected to arrive later this month.
“We have secured 12 million doses in total from the global Covax facility, which has indicated it will release approximately 2 million doses by March. We have secured 9 million vaccine doses from Johnson & Johnson, commencing with delivery in the second quarter. Johnson & Johnson has contracted Aspen, one of our pharmaceutical companies, to manufacture these vaccines in South Africa,” said the president.
Ramaphosa said, in addition, Pfizer had committed 20 million vaccine doses commencing with deliveries in the second quarter and this must be lauded.
However, the issue is the loud silence about leveraging on close ties with Russia and China (BRICS allies) in order to widen the supply source for vaccines and maybe reduce the cost of procurement.
While the president stated the government was in advanced negotiations with manufacturers to secure additional supplies, there was no mention of the BRICS advantage enjoyed by the bloc's only African member.
Yet, the Russian Foreign Ministry has said that Russia was in talks with the African Union about its vaccine, which got the thumbs up from local scientists, and in bilateral talks with South Africa and several other countries on the continent.
Russia had initially attracted criticism that fuelled scepticism for releasing the Sputnik V vaccine to the general population before publishing the phase III trial data. The Lancet, however, found the Sputnik V vaccine was more than 91% effective against Covid-19, according to trial results that were published in its medical journal.
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine got a significant boost when analysis of an advanced clinical trial showed an efficacy of 91.6%.
And Health Department spokesperson Popo Maja has said: “Plans of procuring Sputnik V are in the pipeline. The feeling among our local partners and scientists about Sputnik V is mutual. Much as the World is facing a vaccine competition we are lucky to be part of the BRICS community and feel safe now that we have options such as those the Gamaleya Institute of Russia is developing. So yes plans are afoot to secure the Sputnik V as time goes by.”
The European Union is reportedly making it harder for their locally produced vaccines to be sent outside the bloc. Other countries may be considering the same. Leaders have promised to inoculate large swaths of their populations, and there is a lot at stake if they fail.
Western pharma companies are also reported to be ramping up production to try and meet demand. And the need to be served first is opening the door to smaller states taking supply from wherever they can get it – from South Africa’s BRICS allies China and Russia.
China has successfully developed its vaccine, known as Sinopharm, and Beijing has approved the general public use of the vaccine and it showed a 79% efficacy rate in phase three trials. The UAE and Bahrain have granted the emergency use of the Sinopharm vaccine for key workers.
Ambassador-designate of China to South Africa Chen Xiaodong said China would honour its commitment to make the Covid-19 vaccine a global public good. China is discussing vaccine co-operation with South Africa, he said.
China donated millions of rand in cash, more than 6 million masks, and hundreds of thousands of testing reagents, respirators, temperature guns, goggles, protective suits, surgical gloves and food packages to South Africa.
Wary of the increased demand for vaccines, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying to German public broadcaster ARD: “Every vaccine is welcome in the European Union.” Merkel said she recently spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the vaccine.
This is really not a case of FOMO, but it has to be noted that the loud silence about what advantage we have as BRICS members during the fight of this pandemic is rather disturbing.
Maja said: “South Africa feels good about the development of Sputnik V. The talks we are currently having with the Russian representative are promising.”
That is all well and good but the big question remains: Is South Africa really leveraging on its close ties with BRICS allies to widen the supply source for vaccines?
South Africa needs to know.