South Africa to get first million COVID-19 vaccines in February

South Africa’s first vaccines will arrive in the country on Feb. 1, signaling the start of an inoculation program that has been criticized for its tardiness.

The first million of 1.5 million doses of the shot developed by AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford and produced by the Serum Institute of India Ltd. have been cleared by South African regulators for use, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said at a press conference Wednesday.

They will be ready for distribution 10 to 14 days later, he said. The campaign will prioritize 1.25 million health workers.

The announcement comes amid widespread criticism of the government’s failure to sign bilateral agreements with drugmakers in 2020.

The government clinched the deal with Serum this month and is pursuing other talks as the World Health Organization-backed Covax program will only supply enough vaccines for 10% of South Africa’s 60 million people this year.

“As a country, for us to expect our first consignment of vaccines less than a year after the first case of Covid-19 was recorded is a massive achievement of unprecedented proportions,” Mkhize said.

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE have also applied for registration of their vaccines in South Africa, according to a presentation by the health products regulator at the same press conference.

Johnson & Johnson has submitted data under a so-called rolling review to accelerate approval when its trials are complete.

Health Ministry and government department officials gave details of how the vaccines will be distributed and paid for at the press conference.

South Africa has the most confirmed cases on the continent and a new, more transmittable variant of the virus has caused a sharp rise in infections in recent weeks.

At least 57 countries worldwide have started inoculation campaigns.

The slow start of vaccinations will result in the deaths of thousands of people and delay an economic recovery, said Matthew Parks, parliamentary coordinator for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, a 1.8 million-member group and key ally of the ruling African National Congress.

“It’s extremely insensitive to the 500 lives lost daily,” Parks said. “Every day lost comes at a devastating impact in lives and jobs lost. It will make our recovery prolonged as other countries further ahead vaccinating will impose trade and travel restrictions on our already battered economy.”

Now read: South Africa one of the worst places to be during COVID-19

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South Africa to get first million COVID-19 vaccines in February