As vaccines became available in late 2020, it became clear that the African country, like others, was experiencing difficulties accessing vaccines. South Africa was willing to pay for the vaccines but was unable to secure orders due to vaccine nationalization. Rich nations were buying large amounts of vaccines to the point of hoarding, leaving none for the rest of the world. South Africa had only COVAX to rely on for vaccines in December 2020, and the program was also struggling to match the demand and supply.
In January 2021, the government negotiated with the Serum Institute of India for the AstraZeneca vaccine. It received the first batch of 1.5 million in February, with more on the way. However, no rollout strategy, vaccine sites, or registration system were in place to manage the process. The nation was stunned when the health minister announced that the AstraZeneca vaccine was ineffective against the Beta strain and halted the rollout.
The government also showed very little interest in producing vaccines. The Aspen facility in Gqeberha planned to produce and export 300 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. South Africa quickly negotiated for 500,000 vaccines to be given to frontline health workers, but only as part of a trial, so expansion was limited.
Moreover, in April, the health minister decided to discard 1 million doses of AstraZeneca, which were about to expire, and forgo further deliveries from the Serum Institute of India. The minister also chose not to use the NOVAVAX either. The decisions were controversial; experts argued that even if they were not effective against the Beta variant, they would still be helpful against the original version, which was still prevalent in South Africa. Due to the decision, South Africa could not participate in the first round of COVAX deliveries, which only offered AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.
Circumstances held back the nation again in June when the FDA determined that 2 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine made at the Aspen plant were contaminated and needed to be destroyed. This was due to contamination from a US supplier.
Only in the second half of the year have things begun to look up for South Africa. The Johnson and Johnson trial on health workers yielded positive results, and the country's health regulator approved the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine alongside Pfizer's in April.
In June, large weekly shipments of the 40 million Pfizer doses that South Africa purchased arrived, while the Aspen plant supplied most of the 31 million Johnson and Johnson vaccines. In late May, vaccines were made available to those over 60 years old, and schoolteachers and police officers became eligible for vaccines in June. In early July, the vaccine drive opened to those over the age of 50, and later to those 35 and older.
South Africa also increased the number of vaccination sites from a few dozens to several hundred. The results are starting to show, as the country was able to vaccinate 220,000 people in late July, getting closer to its goal of 300,000 per day. The country is on track to vaccinate 35 million of its 60 million citizens by the end of the year, and 40 million by next February.
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