CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South Africa has secured millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc vaccines to fight the highly infectious COVID-19 variant that is dominant in the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday.
During a televised annual state of the nation address, Ramaphosa said South Africa had secured 9 million doses of the J&J vaccine, with 500,000 expected to arrive over the next four weeks so authorities can start inoculating health workers. Another 20 million doses of the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech were also on their way, he said.
South Africa has been hit hard by a second wave of COVID-19, after the discovery of a new variant in the Eastern Cape, called 501Y.V2, believed to be 50% more contagious than earlier versions of the coronavirus.
It has already spread to two dozen other countries.
“Driven by a new variant of the virus, this second wave was more severe and cost many more lives than the first wave,” Ramaphosa said. “We must undertake a massive vaccination programme to save lives and dramatically reduce infections.”
In addition, the COVAX facility co-led by the World Health Organization will provide 12 million vaccine doses, he said.
COVID-19 has claimed more than 47,000 lives and infected nearly 1.5 million in South Africa since the pandemic began.
Ramaphosa said the economy had shrunk by 6% between the third quarter of 2019 and that of 2020, while unemployment “now stands at a staggering 30.8%,” after 1.7 million jobs were lost.
South Africa had been pinning its hopes on the cheaper AstraZeneca vaccine. Emerging scientific evidence that it is less effective against the local virus variant than other vaccines led it to switch.South Africa’s health minister on Wednesday suggested the government may sell doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine it may not need or swap them others.
“While it should not delay the start of the vaccination programme by much, it will affect the choice of vaccines and the manner of their deployment,” Ramaphosa said, referring to the switch away from the AstraZeneca shot.
The J&J vaccine requires just one shot, while the Pfizer/BioNTech option is a two-dose regimen.
REVIVING A RUINED ECONOMY
Ramaphosa outlined a plan to revive Africa’s most industrialised economy, with a massive programme of building or revamping ports, container terminals, energy generation and transmission, water, transport and telecoms.
He also outlined plans to tackle South Africa’s dire energy shortages – which had plunged the economy into recession before the pandemic – by greatly expanding capacity, especially in renewable power.
It was unclear how the government would fund the ambitious plans.
South Africa is deeply in debt, and the Treasury expects a budget deficit of 15% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the financial year ending March 2021. Ratings downgrades by Moody’s and Fitch late last year, putting its debt deeper into junk, will drive up borrowing costs.
The government will seek bids for 2600 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind power to plug generation shortfall estimated by power utility Eskom in the coming weeks, he said.
Another round of bids will be invited in August 2021, he said, adding that this will be over and above the power procurement plans already announced.
Due to its reliance on coal power, South Africa is one of the world’s major CO2 emitters. Critics say it has been slow to transition to renewable energy, despite huge interest from foreign providers.
“Eskom, our largest greenhouse gas emitter, has committed in principle to net zero emission by 2050,” Ramaphosa said.
(Additional reporting by Promit Mukherjee and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Bill Berkrot)