Business Day Exclusive : US donation of almost 5.7-million Pfizer shots en route to SA

Business Day | Tamar Kahn | July 28, 2021

The donation will provide a significant boost to SA’s immunisation programme — as of Tuesday evening, only 2.58-million people had been fully immunised.

The US government will begin shipping a donation of 5.66-million Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines to SA on Wednesday, with the first consignment expected to land on Saturday, a senior US government official has told Business Day.

The donation will provide a significant boost to SA’s immunisation programme, which after a series of delays got off to a slower than anticipated start in mid-May due to supply constraints. As of Tuesday evening, a total of 6.8-million vaccine doses had been administered, but only 2.58-million people were fully immunised with either the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the double-shot Pfizer jab.

“The US is committed to bringing the same urgency to international vaccine efforts as we have demonstrated at home,” said Dana Banks, special Assistant to US President Joe Biden and senior director for Africa at the National Security Council.

“We are sharing these vaccines to save lives and lead the world in bringing an end to the pandemic. We are sharing these vaccines not to secure favours or concessions: they come with no strings attached,” she said in an interview with Business Day.

Half the vaccines will arrive on Saturday, and the rest on August 2, she said.

“This is a massive donation and a huge impetus to our role-out,” said the health department’s deputy director-general for National Health Insurance, Nicholas Crisp. The programme was ready to scale up to administering 300,000 shots day, which would require at least 150,000 doses a week, he said.

The donation to SA is the biggest yet made by the US to an African nation and will go via the international vaccine sharing programme Covax, co-ordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Access to Vaccines Initiative. The size of the donation to SA was determined in partnership with the AU and is part of the first 25-million vaccine doses the US will share with Africa, said Banks.

The US has already shipped 6.74-million vaccine doses to Africa and would be shipping 4-million doses of the Moderna shot to Nigeria on Wednesday, taking the total shared with the continent so far to 16.4-million.

The Biden administration has made a series of vaccine pledges, which began in May with a commitment to donate 80-million doses by the end of June. On June 10 the US announced it would purchase 500-millions Pfizer doses for donation to 92 low and middle-income countries and the African Union. It has also committed to sharing doses from its domestic supply as they become available.

The start of SA’s vaccine rollout was held up by protracted negotiations with suppliers, and was then hobbled by delays in the delivery of the J&J vaccine, due to safety concerns flagged by the US Food and Drug Administration at Emergent Biosolutions, a US company that provided J&J contractors around the world with the active pharmaceutical ingredients to make its jab.

Millions of doses of the J&J shot were destroyed worldwide as a result of the manufacturing issues the FDA identified at Emergent Biosolutions. It meant the government had only limited supplies of Pfizer vaccines on hand when the rollout began.

The government ordered 31-million doses of J&J vaccine but has so far received only 1.55-million doses sent directly from US in the wake of the Emergent scandal. A further 1.49-million J&J doses produced by Aspen Pharmacare were dispatched from its plant in Gqerberha on Monday, and were awaiting clearance from the National Control Laboratory in Bloemfontein before they can be distributed to sites.

The government has secured 30-million Pfizer doses, and has to date received 8-million doses, 1.39-million of them via Covax, according to Crisp.

Credit: Business Day | Tamar Kahn | July 28, 2021 »