South Africa on Monday took delivery of its first shipment of coronavirus vaccines, paving the way to the first phase of inoculation in Africa’s worst-hit country.
President Cyril Ramaphosa received one million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo airport, footage from public broadcaster SABC showed.
Another 500,000 doses of the vaccine are expected later this month.
The jabs will be administered to some 1.2 million health workers, given top priority in the first phase of vaccination.
First injections will be administered in around two weeks after the vaccines go through quarantine, regulatory and quality-control procedures.
With almost 1.5 million detected infections and more than 44,000 fatalities, South Africa has the highest number of cases and deaths on the continent.
Authorities plan to vaccinate at least 67 percent of the population, or 40 million people, by year’s end.
The vaccine delivery “will signal the start of a mass vaccination campaign that will be the most ambitious and extensive in our country’s history,” Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter earlier on Monday.
One year after the virus started spreading across the world, “the arrival of the vaccine gives great hope for our country’s social and economic recovery — and, most importantly, for the health of our people,” he added.
The government, which has been accused of being slow to acquire Covid vaccines, announced at the weekend that it had secured an additional 20 million doses — this time of the Pfizer/BioNTech formula.
“Unprecedented global demand for vaccine doses, combined with the far greater buying power of wealthier countries” had slowed talks with pharma companies, Ramaphosa said.
The outbreak in South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, has been accelerated by a new variant said to be more contagious than earlier strains of the virus.
Africa had survived much of the worst of the first wave of the pandemic, but recently numbers have been rising fast, with 3.6 million cases and 91,000 deaths reported as of Monday.
So far only a few African countries have started immunisation campaigns, including the Seychelles and Mauritius and more recently Morocco and Algeria.
It is estimated Africa will need 1.5 billion vaccine doses to immunise 60 percent of its 1.3 billion inhabitants, costing between $7 and $10 billion.
The African Union has secured a total of 670 million doses for its member states, according to a tally from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) on Thursday.
African countries have also been promised doses from Covax, the globally-pooled vaccine procurement and distribution effort coordinated by the World Health Organisation.