South Africa’s government has started to roll out its long-awaited coronavirus inoculation programme following the arrival of a first consignment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the country on Tuesday.
The 80,000 doses of the vaccine were distributed to 17 medical centres in South Africa’s nine provinces overnight, and frontline healthcare workers were being vaccinated in some areas from Wednesday morning.
South Africa will receive another 220,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson shot over the next six weeks and a further nine million will be delivered by the pharmaceutical company by the end of June.
The country's president Cyril Ramaphosa and health minister Zweli Mkhize joined a group of nurses at the Khayelitsha district hospital in Cape Town to receive their shots, as part of the government's efforts to encourage people to take the vaccine.
Speaking afterwards Mr Mkhize told reporters that South Africa had enough vaccines in the pipeline to inoculate the 40 million citizens it needed to vaccinate to reach herd immunity, and that the government would provide them free of charge.
An additional 20 million doses from Pfizer are expected to arrive in South Africa later this year, while more vaccines are being sourced from the World Health Organisation-backed Covax scheme, which aims to ensure their equitable distribution globally.
The country’s 1.25 million healthcare workers are the only people who will be inoculated for now. But once they are immunised, other categories of South Africans susceptible to severe Covid-19 infection will be added to the vaccination programme.
However, parliament heard on Tuesday that only 380,000 healthcare workers had registered to be vaccinated so far.
Despite the apparent slow take-up by healthcare workers, the arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines prompted a collective sigh of relief among most South Africans on Wednesday, as last week the government was forced to halt the rollout of its AstraZeneca vaccine programme.
A decision was taken to dispense with the AstraZeneca formula after a small study showed it had limited efficacy against the Covid-19 variant dominant in the country.
The 1 million AstraZeneca doses South Africa received from the Serum Institute of India on February 1st have now been offered to the African Union, so it can distribute them to member states that are not struggling with the South African Covid-19 variant.
South Africa’s second wave of Covid-19 has subsided significantly in recent weeks, with only 1,210 new cases and 219 related deaths recorded in the 24 hours before Tuesday’s official update, compared to the more than 10,000 infections it was recording daily in early January.
In total, South Africa has to date identified near 1.5 million Covid-19 cases and confirmed 48,313 related deaths.