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African Continent to Soon Receive First COVID Vaccines, Health Officials Say

FILE - Medical technicians administer COVID-19 swab tests at a drive-through testing site at Wits University, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa, Jan. 5, 2021.
FILE - Medical technicians administer COVID-19 swab tests at a drive-through testing site at Wits University, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa, Jan. 5, 2021.

A ray of hope emerged Thursday for the Rainbow Nation, which has seen a massive spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases, as South Africa’s health minister announced a large shipment of vaccines is coming this month.

Zweli Mkhize said the country will receive one million vaccine doses by the end of January, and another half million in February, both from the Serum Institute of India. The first doses, he says, will go to health workers.

Mkhize acknowledged that South Africa’s vaccine acquisition was delayed because the nation was unable to pay for vaccines that were still in development -- a barrier wealthier nations haven’t faced. But, he vowed, it will catch up. South Africa’s limited budget also led officials to choose the cheapest vaccine option, offered by AstraZeneca.

“We will be making sure that we bring the vaccines as quickly as possible into South Africa,” he said. “By the time we start the vaccination program, we won't be very far different from many countries. We would actually be all in line with most of the countries. So, we would like to assure the public that, in fact, we are all on course.”

That heartening news came after South Africa, which is the continent’s viral hotspot, reported what Mkhize described as a “grim milestone” -- surpassing 20,000 new cases in a 24-hour period. And, he said the situation gets worse from there, as the nation enters a second wave that features a new variant of the virus that appears to be spreading much faster.

“Deaths are already higher than what we ever experienced before,” the health minister said. “Admissions are already higher than what we experienced before. The new cases on the seven day average are also higher than what we experienced before.”

South Africa has now seen more than 1.1 million cases since the virus first arrived in March. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases says that 31,368 people have died in South Africa.

Once South Africa’s health workers are vaccinated, a second round of vaccinations will target 17 million people, including essential workers, teachers, the elderly and those with other health conditions that put them at higher risk. In the end, Mkhize said, the nation hopes to vaccinate about 40 million people within the year, about 67 percent of the population. That figure is close to what health experts say is the threshold for herd immunity.

As for the rest of the vast continent, Dr. Kate O’Brien, the WHO’s director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, described the process by which 92 of the world’s poorest nations can get access to the vaccine, through the COVAX Facility, a global initiative of 192 countries that is trying to ensure equitable access.

“For countries, 92 countries, that are less able to actually purchase these vaccines on their own from their own domestic funds, there are donor funds that have been provided,” she said. “We need about $7 billion in order to deliver enough vaccine to these countries through the end of 2021. And the facility has already raised about $6 billion of the $7 billion.”

O’Brien said the facility “has access to over two billion doses of vaccine” and will start to deliver those vaccines by mid-February.

“That's how countries in Africa and South Asia, and other countries around the world of these 92 that are less able to afford vaccines, are actually going to get vaccine,” she said.

O'Brien emphasized that people with HIV -- South Africa carries the world’s highest burden of that virus -- should be vaccinated. But pregnant and breastfeeding women should discuss the vaccine with health care providers before making a decision.