By Tim Cocks
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa will vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of its population, against COVID-19 in order to achieve herd immunity, its health minister said on Thursday, as a mutant variant drove daily new cases above 21,000 for the first time.
He spoke as the government said it would receive 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca's shot from the Serum Institute of India (SII), spread over January and February.
Health workers have voiced concern that authorities have not acted fast enough to secure enough vaccines.
A more contagious coronavirus variant, first found on South Africa's east coast late last year, is driving a second wave of infections, pushing its total to 1.15 million, or about a third of the continent's cases.
This week, deaths from COVID-19 in South Africa surpassed 30,000, and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said private and public hospitals were struggling to manage the influx of patients.
"Deaths and admissions are already higher than what we have ever experienced," he said in virtual presentation to parliament.
Without saying when the programme would start, he proposed vaccinating 40 million people over a year, a goal he admitted was "a huge task" given the country's staff and facilities.
"We need 67-70% of the population to be immunised to break the cycle of transmission ... (and achieve) herd immunity," he said.
Health workers have grown frustrated by what they see as the government's slowness in getting enough COVID-19 vaccines, and have publicly petitioned for quicker action.
The doses from the SII would cover the 1.25 million health workers Mkhize said should be prioritised for vaccination.
During his presentation, Mkhize laid out a model for how procurement might work. Some 70% would come from AstraZeneca, whose shots were the cheapest at 54 rand ($3.57) per dose, while Johnson & Johnson would get a 20% allocation, and Pfizer and Moderna 5% each. South Africa has yet to sign a large direct deal with any of those manufacturers. It is participating in the COVAX initiative co-led by the World Health Organization to cover 10% of its populace.
"The department has approached a number of vaccine manufacturers and discussions are at a sensitive stage," Mkhize said, adding that talks would soon conclude.
'MAKE SURE WE ARE PROTECTED'
Mkhize estimated the cost at 20.6 billion rand ($1.36 billion) for the targeted 67% coverage.
But nurses interviewed by Reuters doubted vaccines would be swiftly deployed, based on the problems they faced during the pandemic such as shortages of protective gear.
"If government hasn't even ... given us proper things to work with, how are they going to roll out this vaccine and make sure that we are protected?" asked Portia Maseko, who works at the Leratong Hospital outside Johannesburg.
Mkhize acknowledged criticism from health workers, and conceded health services were understaffed.
"We've had lots of pressure on our staff .... the level of exhaustion is quite noticeable," he said. "(But) Government is on course and the matter of availability of vaccines is being handled."
($1 = 15.1387 rand)
(Additional reporting by Alexander Winning and Siyabonga Sishi; Editing by Toby Chopra and Mike Collett-White)