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South Africa new coronavirus variant rages alongside vaccine finance debate

By The Africa Report
Posted on Tuesday, 5 January 2021 12:26

Virus Outbreak South Africa
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will not be making any friends with his booze ban, but cases of coronavirus in South Africa are surging. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

South Africa's struggle with a new variant of Covid-19 coincides with a debate over how and who will pay for the vaccine. The business community may be one part of the solution, with the government saying the Pfizer jab is too expensive.

Where will South Africa get its vaccine from? And who will pay?

With a new highly-contagious variant these questions are critical, even as UK scientists cast doubt on the efficacy of the vaccine on this new strain of the coronavirus.

READ MORE Vaccine won’t work against South Africa coronavirus variant, worry UK scientists

While it is now part of the pooled global system for distributing vaccines known as Covax, this will only supply enough for 10% of the population in the second quarter. Many critics believe this is too little too late, with leading trade unions accusing the government of being ‘caught napping’.

Supply constraints are building up. Leading pharmaceutical producers Moderna, for example, has said it will not be providing its jab in South Africa.

And while Pfizer has offered its vaccine to South Africa at $10 a shot, an unnamed source speaking to Bloomberg says South Africa has refused on cost grounds. The source said a full cost shot is almost twice the price offered to South Africa.

Middle-income bind

The country – by virtue of being neither poor nor rich – is caught in a bind when it comes to paying for the vaccine, as it is considered ‘middle income’.

“The reason SA is not able to access the vaccine the way the US and UK can is because we are not a wealthy country. This is systemic and global”, Deputy director-general of the department of health Dr Anban Pillay told reporters. “Poor countries are always left behind when it comes to health interventions”.

Envious glances are thrown to another middle incoming country Egypt, which has approved China’s Sinopharm vaccine and taken shipment of the first consignment.

So what finance options does South Africa have, as the virus take hold?

The country saw a record 2,910 deaths in the last week, according to Johns Hopkins University data, as the new highly-contagious Covid-19 variant, with most of the cases in Gauteng and Western Cape.

As of January 04, overall coronavirus cases in South Africa reached a new peak, at 1,113,349 infections.

Will business cough up the cash?

One solution may come from the business community.

Insurers are working with the government to extend coverage to those who lack health insurance – around 85 % of the population, according to 2019 figures.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s blue chip companies are considering pooling resources to pay for vaccines.

“Business will fully support a vaccine strategy led by the government, and particularly the Department of Health and the National Treasury, which is transparent, credible, with integrity and clearly defined and properly coordinated responsibilities and accountability,” Martin Kingston, vice president of Business Unity South Africa told Bloomberg on Monday.

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