The South African government wants to pay Russia over R654 million for 5 million doses of the Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine after it refused an offer of 15 million free shots earlier this year.
This is according to a report from Sunday newspaper Rapport, which has obtained emails confirming that representatives of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and the institute which developed the vaccine met with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) earlier this year.
The meeting, which took place on 28 January, discussed the emergency registration of 15 million Sputnik V doses for delivery between March and May.
However, SAHPRA’s tone was described as negative by an RDIF representative, who claimed it was clear that officials had been given instruction to purposefully derail the proposal.
Russia has claimed that Sputnik V is 90% effective in preventing death from COVID-19.
SAHPRA was hesitant to give its approval for the vaccine owing to concerns over its efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant, which was the dominant variant in South Africa at the time.
In addition, flags have been raised over the vaccine’s possible effects on persons with HIV/Aids, as it uses adenovirus type 5, which previous research on an HIV/Aids vaccine showed made people more susceptible to HIV.
Despite the offer of free vaccines and SAHPRA’s concerns, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize previously told Parliament’s portfolio committee on health that the department wanted to buy 5 million doses of Sputnik V.
He said this was being done as it was expected that SAHPRA would approve the vaccines.
The African Union paid $9.75 (R132) per Sputnik V dose, which means 5 million of these could cost around R654 million at current exchange rates.
Vaccine rollout progress
South Africa previously sold 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the African Union after research showed that it only provided limited protection against the so-called “South African variant” (501Y.V2) of the virus.
The World Health Organisation has since officially designated 501Y.V2 as the Beta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
South Africa’s vaccine roll-out faced further delays when it halted the distribution of Johnson & Johnson vaccines following concerns over reports of blood clotting incidents overseas.
Following an investigation into the reports of blood clotting elsewhere in the world, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was once again cleared for use in South Africa.
While South Africa has secured enough doses from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer & BioNTech to vaccinate 45 million adults, these vaccines did not arrive early enough to prevent the start of a third wave of infections.
The snail’s pace of the vaccine roll-out has been blamed on government’s slow response in engaging vaccine developers to secure batches as early as possible, which has to led to delayed deliveries.
As of Friday, Media Hack’s vaccination calculator showed that at the current rate of vaccination it would take South Africa more than nine years to vaccinate 67% of the population.
By Friday, 1,266,893 vaccinations had been administered in South Africa since the rollout started on 17 February 2021, making for an average of just 11,840 per day.
Fortunately, the latest information from the Health Department indicated a big increase in average vaccinations per day.
It showed that a total of 1,336,547 vaccines had been administered as of Saturday 5 June, a daily increase of 69,600 vaccinations.
However, Media Hack’s calculator showed South Africa would have to vaccinate around 100,000 people per day to reach herd immunity one year after starting the rollout.