South Africa launches large-scale vaccination rollout

·3-min read
Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah were among the first seniors to be vaccinated as the drive kicked off

After much delay and on the cusp of a third wave of Covid-19 infections, South Africa on Monday launched a large-scale immunisation drive, targeting around five million people aged over 60 by the end of June.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize was on hand as nurses administered jabs at an elderly care facility in the mining town of Krugersdorp, around 30 kilometres (18 miles) west of Johannesburg.

Among the first seniors to receive their vaccinations under the mainstream campaign was 89-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Tutu and his wife Leah emerged in wheelchairs from the Brooklyn Chest Hospital in Cape Town after being immunised.

Despite being Africa's worst virus-hit country, registering more than 1.6 million cases including 55,210 deaths, South Africa has vaccinated fewer than 480,000 people or just one percent of its population, mainly health workers.

The drive started in February when South Africa became the first country in the world to administer inoculations by US pharma group Johnson & Johnson, but it has moved slowly.

The government, which has been widely criticised for the sluggish pace of the campaign, says it has ordered enough doses to vaccinate at least 45 million of the estimated 59 million population.

"Five million senior citizens are targeted to be completed by the end of June, provided that the supply of vaccines flow as anticipated," Mkhize said.

He said the country expects to have received 4.5 million doses of Pfizer and two million J&J doses in the next six weeks.

South Africa and India are leading a global campaign to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines so that any country can produce vaccines, with poor countries so far lagging behind in the vaccination race.

- 'Vaccine apartheid' -

President Cyril Ramaphosa deplored the shortfall.

"A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid," he said last week.

South Africa earlier this year purchased AstraZeneca vaccines and then sold them to other African countries over fears that they would be less effective.

Then, after it started inoculating healthcare workers with the J&J jabs, it had to pause for two weeks in mid-April to vet risks over blood clots that had been reported in the US.

The "phase two" rollout is being conducted at 87 vaccination sites using the Pfizer formula.

Minister Mkhize said the vaccinations would start "fairly slowly" but be ramped up towards the end of the month "because we are starting off with a new vaccine we have never used before."

After a brief lull, infections climbed by as much as 46 percent between the last week of April and the first week of May.

Some experts blame the backlog in the rollout for the jump.

"If we had the vaccine rolled out much earlier that would have helped," said medical professor Nombulelo Magula, who serves on the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee.

bur-sn/gd