Battling COVID-19 resurgence, South Africa prepares for first vaccines

Battling a COVID-19 resurgence driven by what health officials say is a more infectious variant, South Africa is preparing to roll out its first vaccines to front-line health-care workers.

A delivery of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine was expected to arrive Wednesday at Johannesburg’s international airport. Health officials said doctors and nurses would begin to receive the shots next week. 

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said South Africa intends to vaccinate 67 per cent of its 60 million people in 2021, starting with the most vulnerable health workers. He was expected to speak about the arrival of the vaccines later Wednesday.

The start of South Africa’s vaccination drive — one of the first on the continent — comes as the country reports Africa’s highest numbers of confirmed cases and deaths related to COVID-19. South Africa’s 1.4 million cumulative cases, including 41,797 deaths, represent about 40 per cent of the cases reported by all of Africa’s 54 countries.

First round to go to those facing highest-risk

The shipment of vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India is expected to arrive by air freight from Mumbai, India, according to local media. The first one million doses are to be followed by 500,000 doses in February.

The initial vaccines will not cover all of South Africa’s 1.25 million health-care workers, so the first round will go to those with the highest risk in intensive care units, especially those performing intubations, health officials said.

South Africa’s Department of Health has appointed the Biovac Institute, a pharmaceutical and vaccine firm based in Cape Town, to “import, store, and distribute the 1.5 million doses of Covishield vaccine procured by the government from the Serum Institute of India,” the company said in a statement Wednesday. Covishield is the name for the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India.

South Africa’s vaccination campaign comes as the country appears to have passed the peak of a resurgence of COVID-19 that in the past month saw confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise to nearly double the numbers in the country’s initial surge in July.

Decrease in COVID-19 deaths

South Africa’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has halved, dropping from 32 new cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 12 to 16 new cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 26, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is based in Maryland, MD.

The country’s deaths have also begun decreasing, with the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths declining from 0.92 per 100,000 people on Jan. 12 to 0.85 per 100,000 people on Jan. 26.

The variant identified in South Africa as 501Y.V2 was a major factor in the resurgence, as it is more transmissible, according to health experts. The variant quickly became dominant in the Eastern Cape province, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the new cases there in December, and spread to the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.

Large numbers of people travelling to South Africa’s coastal areas and attending family and social gatherings during the holiday season also contributed to the resurgence, officials said.

The first phase of South Africa’s vaccination campaign is to be followed by the inoculation of 16 million people including the remaining health-care workers, the elderly and those with co-morbidities. A third phase is planned to vaccinate another 22.5 million in order to reach the goal of 40 million people.

The vaccines for the countrywide campaign, which is the largest in the country’s history, will be sourced through the international COVAX facility, the African Union — which has purchased 270 million vaccine doses to be distributed across the continent — and South Africa’s purchase of vaccines directly from manufacturers.

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