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COVID-19 vaccine: Africa must work with China

01 Jan 2021 at 07:49hrs | Views
THERE is a global race to procure COVID-19 vaccines, and right now South Africa is not doing well. Currently, the race leaders are Israel who have already vaccinated more than 9% of their population and Bahrain who have vaccinated almost 4% of their population. In total, 34 countries have begun vaccinating their populations and not one of these countries is African.

While South Africa is correct to be an active participant in the Covax initiative, we need to understand that this initiative is meant to help low-income countries get equitable access to vaccines. But South Africa is a middle-income country which means that we will be subsidising the cost for low-income countries. Covax will not get us quicker access to a vaccine.

What is needed in addition to the Covax initiative is for South Africa to be aggressively negotiating to buy vaccines directly from manufacturers. At the moment, the elderly in the rich world are at the front of the vaccine queue while our elderly and vulnerable people are not even standing in line.

Only aggressive and hard-nosed negotiation will see our vulnerable people receiving protection in the next month or two. There is no logical reason why our vulnerable people should have to stand at the back of the line. We have the money to buy vaccines - they are not expensive. Currently, about 400 South Africans are dying daily from COVID-19 and this number is set to increase significantly in the coming weeks. Every week's delay in getting a vaccine means possibly thousands of lives lost unnecessarily.

The bad news is that the first two vaccines - manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna - have mostly already been sold to wealthy countries. These RNA vaccines need to be stored at -70 degrees centigrade which poses a significant logistical challenge for developing countries like ours.

The good news is that yesterday the Chinese company, Sinopharm, announced that its vaccine is 79% effective in recently completed phase 3 trials. The Sinopharm vaccine only needs to be stored in a normal vaccine fridge already in widespread use in South Africa and the rest of the continent. Sinopharm is one of world's largest vaccine manufacturers with the capacity to quickly produce hundreds of millions of vaccine doses. The UAE has been vaccinating its healthcare workers with the Sinopharm vaccine since September (and claimed 86% effectiveness) and Bahrain has now made it available for free to any citizen over the age of 18 years.

Why is the above significant for South Africa?

In the global race to get the earliest access to a vaccine, North America and Europe have used their wealth and political influence to buy up most of the vaccines produced by Western companies. However, the past year has seen relations between China and the US and the EU.

In geo-political terms, there are worrying signs of a new cold war developing between Western nations and China. As a result, politicians in the West are loath to be seen to negotiate with a Chinese State-owned company for a vaccine. South Africa, on the other hand, has been a reliable friend to China and has resisted Western efforts to isolate the emerging super-power. SA's active membership and support of BRICS has also strengthened this relationship.

It is time that our president makes a personal appeal to the Chinese to give us priority access to the Sinopharm vaccine. This appeal should not be based purely on our long-standing relationship but also on a per capita basis, South Africa has suffered so far the worst death rate from COVID-19in Africa.

When the more reliable "excess deaths" numbers are used to calculate the number of COVID-19 deaths, the Eastern Cape province has among the worst Covid death rates per capita in the world.

For those people who are distrustful of China, they are free to wait until after April 2021 when other vaccines are more widely available. But for those of us who know that Sinopharm is a global leader in vaccine production, please give us access to the vaccine now. Many thousands of lives are at stake. The sooner we can get vaccinated, the sooner life returns to normal. It's time our leaders started pulling all the strings available to us to save our people and rescue our economy. We want vaccines in January 2021. Not in April.

Source - Daily Maverick
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