S.Africa targets COVID-19 vaccines next month but deals not yet signed

FILE PHOTO: A health worker holds a COVID-19 sample collection kit of a vaccine trials' volunteer at the Wits RHI Shandukani Research Centre in Johannesburg
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By Alexander Winning

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa aims to get COVID-19 vaccines by next month but is still in talks with pharmaceutical companies and no deals have been signed yet, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Sunday, amid growing criticism of the government's response.

The country is battling a resurgence in coronavirus infections driven partly by a new variant called 501.V2. It has recorded more than 1 million infections, the most on the African continent, and more than 29,000 deaths.

In an opinion piece published in major local news outlets on Saturday, a group of prominent health experts criticised the government for moving too slowly to procure sufficient vaccines.

Africa's most industrialised nation is participating in the COVAX vaccine distribution initiative co-led by the World Health Organization but the scheme could only cover 10% of its population of roughly 60 million people and the first doses may only arrive in the second quarter of the year.

That has caused anxiety among some scientists and academics, who have urged the government to reach agreements with pharmaceutical companies quickly given that other countries have already started vaccinating.

Mkhize said at a news conference that officials were doing everything possible to obtain vaccines before the COVAX doses become available.

"We are targeting February, although all of that will depend very much on the success of the current bilateral negotiations," he said.

Mkhize said the ultimate aim was to vaccinate a minimum of 67% of the population to reach herd immunity.

He said the approach would be to target frontline healthcare workers in the first phase of vaccination, followed by a second phase comprising essential workers, people in congregate settings, people over the age of 60 and those aged over 18 with co-morbidities. A third phase of the rollout would target other people over the age of 18.

The government has had discussions with vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, as well as with ones in Russia and China, a health ministry presentation showed.

The presentation said negotiations had progressed well and the government was fairly confident of having supply in the first quarter.

Mkhize said officials were considering three mechanisms to fund vaccine procurement: government financing, medical aids and a private sector contribution.

New daily cases hit a record 18,000 several days ago but have dipped slightly since.

(Reporting by Alexander Winning, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alexandra Hudson)