Stop hoarding Covid-19 vaccines, South Africa's president tells rich nations

South Africa is struggling to secure sufficient vaccines to start countrywide inoculation programmes.
South Africa is struggling to secure sufficient vaccines to start countrywide inoculation programmes.PHOTO: REUTERS

PRETORIA (AFP) - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday (Jan 26) lashed out at “vaccine nationalism”, accusing rich countries of bulk-buying coronavirus vaccines and hoarding them to the detriment of others.

Addressing the all-virtual 2021 World Economic Forum (WEF), President Ramaphosa said that low- and middle-income countries were being shouldered aside by wealthier nations able to acquire “up to four times what their population needs”.

He warned: “We are concerned about vaccine nationalism. Rich countries in the world are holding on to these vaccines and we are saying, release the excess vaccines that you have ordered and hoarded.”

Mr Ramaphosa’s comments coincides with growing concerns that bilateral deals between wealthier governments and coronavirus vaccine manufacturers could hike prices and limit supply in some regions.

The World Health Organisation had already warned against “vaccine nationalism” and “price gouging” last year, before a successful jab was found.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus this month told rich countries not to jump the queue and called on those which had ordered excess doses to hand them over to its Covax vaccine-sharing facility.

South Africa, the continent’s worst-affected nation, is already paying two and a half times more for Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine than European Union members, its health ministry said last week.

The European Union said it has invested heavily in the vaccine, taking the risk of funding its development and pre-production at a time when there was no guarantee that it would be effective.

A first batch of at least 1.5 million doses ordered from the Serum Institute of India is expected to arrive in South Africa this month.

That eagerly-awaited shipment will mark the start of its inoculation campaign, which aims to vaccinate two thirds of a 60 million-strong population by the end of 2021.

A total of 20 million doses have been ordered so far.

Covax is expected to provide shots for 10 per cent of the population later this year, while other vaccines will be supplied via the African Union and bilateral contracts with manufacturers that have not yet been disclosed.

But Mr Ramaphosa said pooling initiatives such as the African Union-led African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team had only been “marginally successful”.

He urged vaccine hoarders to make excess doses directly available to their less wealthy counterparts and back this with financial assistance.

“We want vaccines as quickly as other countries do,” Mr Ramaphosa added. “Coronavirus...affects all of us equally. Therefore our remedies, our actions to combat it must also be equal.”

While reported coronavirus cases have remained comparatively low in Africa, many countries are battling with second infection waves often more viscous than their first.

More infectious virus variants, including one discovered in South Africa, have, meanwhile, accelerated the global vaccine scramble.

The African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, established by Mr Ramaphosa himself as African Union chairman, has committed to buying a provisional 270 million vaccine doses for African countries.

Covax is aiming to deliver 600 million shots to the continent.

It is estimated that Africa will need 1.5 billion vaccine doses to immunise 60 per cent of its 1.3 billion inhabitants, costing between US$7 and US$10 billion (between S$9 and S$13 billion).

As of Tuesday afternoon, South Africa has recorded a cumulative 1.4 million Covid-19 cases, with 41,117 deaths.