Concerns over COVID-19 vaccines being stolen in South Africa

The South African government is concerned that South Africa’s stock of COVID-19 vaccines may be stolen.

The Department of Health told City Press that there is a risk of COVID-19 vaccines being stolen and sold on the black market at inflated prices.

In an attempt to prevent this, South Africa’s vaccines will be stored in a secret, centralised location from where they will be distributed to healthcare facilities.

“There will be a central place where the consignment will be stored and from where we will distribute it to hospital and clinic pharmacies that can store it,” Department of Health spokesperson Popo Maja told the publication.

“There’s a security issue too because countries which have already begun rolling out the vaccines have warned us that there is a huge theft of it, so we may not even disclose where it is being centrally stored.”

“The vaccines are a highly-rated commodity once they’re stolen and reach the black market.”

Maja said that if this occurs, there is a risk that the prices of these illegally-obtained vaccines will be hiked significantly.

Vaccine roll-out

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on 7 January that the government had secured 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The initial roll-out fo this vaccine will prioritise 1.25 million healthcare workers in both the public and private sectors.

1 million doses of the vaccine will be delivered to South Africa in January, and another 500,000 will arrive in February.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is significantly cheaper than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, although it is based on similar mechanics.

While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA (messenger-RNA) vaccines that deliver encoded instructions for the body to manufacture antibodies against a key protein present in the coronavirus, the AstraZeneca vaccine encodes these instructions and stores them in double-stranded DNA.

These DNA instructions are then added to an adenovirus, which is designed to enter cells but cannot replicate inside them.

“South African strain”

It is currently unclear whether these COVID-19 vaccines will be as effective against the recently-discovered “South African variant” of the coronavirus.

National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) acting executive director Professor Adrian Puren previously told MyBroadband that the recently-discovered coronavirus mutation may require the COVID-19 vaccine to be re-engineered to be effective.

This may be a major problem, considering that this variant is most prevalent within the second wave of COVID-19 cases in South Africa.

The 501.V2 variant of COVID-19 that emerged in South Africa has undergone mutations which may affect antibody recognition and subsequently the vaccine, although this currently remains unclear

“There are two mutations that have resulted in two amino acid changes in the receptor membrane binding protein that is key in antibody recognition,” Puren told MyBroadband.

“These changes, in theory, can affect antibody binding and it is currently under investigation to determine what effect if any these will have.”

“If this region is essential for antibody responses, then the antigen protein may have to be re-engineered to ensure efficacy,” he said.

Now read: South Africa in advanced talks over Johnson and Johnson vaccine

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Concerns over COVID-19 vaccines being stolen in South Africa