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South Africa welcomes first delivery of COVID-19 vaccines

South Africa welcomed the delivery of its first COVID-19 vaccine doses.
South African law enforcement vehicles near Johannesburg provide security on Feb. 1, 2021, for two refrigerated trucks transporting the AstraZeneca vaccine that arrived earlier from India.
(Alet Pretorius / Associated Press)

South Africa gave a hero’s welcome Monday to the delivery of its first COVID-19 vaccines — 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa greeted the crates of vaccine that arrived at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport. The shipment will be followed up later this month by an additional 500,000 doses.

The vaccine will be effective in preventing severe disease and death from the variant that has become dominant in South Africa, a vaccine expert says.

The AstraZeneca vaccines will be used to inoculate South Africa’s front-line health workers, which will kickstart the country’s vaccination campaign. The first shots are expected to be administered in mid-February, after the vaccines are tested and approved by South Africa’s drug regulatory authorities.

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“The arrival of the first vaccines is excellent news and a step in the right direction for South Africa,” said professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute.

Although the variant that has become dominant in South Africa is expected to reduce the efficacy of the AstraZeneca and other vaccines, Hanekom said initial trials indicate that all the various inoculations will still offer good protection.

“The most important point that should be emphasized is that while the vaccines offer variable efficacy in preventing infection with COVID-19, so far severe disease and death are prevented by all the vaccines,” he said from his office in Durban.

“So it doesn’t matter the level of efficacy, the vaccines all seem to work pretty well against severe disease and death, even against this new variant, it appears. And that is very good news,” Hanekom said.

South Africa’s government intends to inoculate 40 million people, representing 67% of the country’s population of 60 million, by the end of the year.

South Africa has by far the highest number of COVID-19 cases in all of Africa, with 1.45 million confirmed cases, including 44,164 deaths, according to official figures released Sunday. That represents about 41% of all cases reported by Africa’s 54 countries, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa’s scramble to acquire adequate vaccines to reach that ambitious target received a substantial boost with the news that it has acquired 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. They are expected to arrive in the second quarter of the year, the government said.

Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize will announce the cost of the Pfizer vaccines at a later date, said Lwazi Manzi, spokeswoman for the health ministry.

In the coming months, South Africa is expecting to receive 12 million vaccine doses from the international COVAX facility, 9 million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when it is approved, and an estimated 20 million from the African Union’s vaccine acquisition task team. Further acquisitions of vaccines will be needed to meet the government’s inoculation target.


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