Cape Town - The ongoing setbacks in South Africa’s vaccine programme to fight the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the urgent need for government to have a multi-pronged strategy.
In the aftermath of last week’s announcement by Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and some of the country’s top scientists that the recently acquired Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa will not be effective in combating the new variant of Covid-19, scepticism and frustration are mounting over government’s vaccine strategy.
Following months of secrecy regarding its strategy, the ensuing outrage after last week’s announcement is not surprising.
Increasingly, questions are being raised over what exactly is behind this secrecy.
What is, however, becoming increasingly clear is that ordinary citizens are paying a heavy price for the one-track approach adopted by government.
Following months of over-reliance on the delivery of a so-called “silver bullet” from AstraZeneca, the emphasis has now shifted to the delivery this week of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which some of our scientists are claiming is the new “silver bullet”.
Throughout the entire process of considering and securing vaccines, it is somewhat confounding that South Africa has not thought it prudent to engage its BRICS partners from the outset, on the possible rollout of China’s Sinovac and/or Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines.
It also remains a mystery as to why the South African government chose to bypass a direct engagement with the Indian government and concluded its negotiations with third parties for the acquisition of the AstraZeneca vaccine - at a premium price.
Following the intense heat on government in the wake of the shocking announcement of the temporary halting of the AstraZeneca programme, Mkhize belatedly announced that both the Chinese and Russian vaccines are also now being considered as alternatives.
In January 2020, Sinopharm announced that it was developing a vaccine against Covid-19 and in December of the same year, the Chinese pharmaceutical giant announced that its vaccine had an efficacy rate of 79,34% leading to approval from the Chinese government.
In between this, countries like the UAE, Egypt, Morocco and Peru, conducted phase three trials of the vaccine with the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain giving emergency approval for its use.
Writing in prestigious medical journal Lancet on 2 February 2021, Professors Ian Jones and Polly Roy penned a review titled “Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine candidate appears safe and effective” elaborating on the efficacy of the Russian vaccine.
They conclude their insightful article with the following pronouncement: “The development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency. But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine for South Africa can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of Covid-19.”
I reiterate then, that as a member of the BRICS bloc, it is a great mystery as to why our government has chosen to ignore a more detailed engagement with Russia and China from the outset regarding the use of the Sinovac, Sinopharm or Sputnik V vaccines in South Africa.
The lack of transparency around the decisions made by government relating to its vaccine programme, can only lead to speculation over the reasoning behind the lack of engagement with China and Russia.
Given the current delays in rolling out a comprehensive vaccine programme and the ongoing controversy around the AstraZeneca project, embracing the interventions of China and Russia might have saved this country a lot of pain, and time.
As it stands, many developing countries across the globe have acted decisively and embraced multiple vaccine options, including the Chinese and Russian alternatives. The latest being our immediate neighbour, Zimbabwe.
Against the background of the abhorrent vaccine nationalism stance adopted by developed countries, South Africa’s one-track strategy has come back to haunt us a nation.
The tensions between South Africa, India and the Serum Institute over the expiry conundrum related to the one million doses of the AztraZeneca vaccine already delivered, further exacerbates an already volatile situation.
In the wake of the AstraZeneca debacle, there were high expectations that President Cyril Ramaphosa would have given the nation greater clarity in his State of the Nation Address on the country’s vaccine acquisition programme. This failed to materalise. Rather, his promises for a mass vaccination programme were simply premised on a strategy, which to date, has failed abysmally.
Government has a moral obligation to explore all options at its disposal to prevent the current situation from further spiralling out of control. Such options must include a strategic engagement with its BRICS partners Russia and China regarding the use of their respective vaccines in this country. Naturally, the use of these vaccines, and for that matter, any other vaccine, must be subjected to the country’s stringent regulatory protocols and testing. Until such testing occurs, we will remain in the dark as to whether or not these vaccines will work in South Africa.
There is no doubt that the current indecisiveness has proven to be a major setback to protecting the health of the nation, and our economy.
Warnings by government’s own experts that multiple waves of infection must be expected as the country approaches its winter season, have all the ingredients for a perfect storm.
Right now, it seems that government is floundering in its efforts to prepare for the storm, let alone navigate it should it arrive.
In the short term, a partnership between our own scientists and their counterparts from countries like Russia, China and India, could establish a platform for the development of a vaccine for South Africa that is more resistant to the current variant and future ones.
In the long-term, such a partnership could evolve into a comprehensive vaccine development project that will serve the interests of the country, the continent and other developing countries around the world.
My own engagements with counterparts in the BRICS Business Council have revealed genuine concerns over the South African government’s reluctance to engage meaningfully with BRICS countries over South Africa’s vaccine strategy.
Taking into account that BRICS countries are home to just over three billion people (42% of the global population), one would imagine that South Africa would harness the benefits of being a member of this powerful bloc, including an intensive engagement on a joint vaccine development strategy.
Notwithstanding this reluctance, these countries continue to be committed to extricating South Africa from its current predicament.
With the storm fast approaching, it will take all hands-on deck to navigate a clear passage and way forward. A multi-pronged co-operative strategy is what is required, not a single-minded solo navigation of the problem at hand.
* Iqbal Survé is a former BRICS Business Council Chairperson.