South Africa faces new surge in Covid-19 infections as vaccinations stall

Country records more than 13,000 cases in 24-hour period with total now at more than 1.7m

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa (right) heads a government delegation on a visit to ASPEN Pharmaceuticals in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in March. Photograph:  AP

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa (right) heads a government delegation on a visit to ASPEN Pharmaceuticals in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in March. Photograph: AP

 

South Africa faces a renewed surge in Covid-19 infections at the same time as its vaccination programme has run into difficulty.

On Wednesday the country recorded its highest number of cases since January, when the second wave of the virus gripped the nation, with more than 13,000 infections confirmed over the previous 24 hours. This brought the total number of recorded cases to over 1.7 million.

With the country entering a potential third wave of the virus, its goal of inoculating five million senior citizens by June 30th already looks out of reach, with many provincial health authorities unable to hit daily vaccination targets.

On Wednesday the national department of health reported that only about 1.5 million people had received at least one dose of Pfizer’s two-shot inoculation since the current phase of its vaccination rollout – which covers people over 60 and healthcare workers – began in May.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize had said the government hoped to achieve the end-of-June target as long as enough vaccines were available.

However, concerns were expressed from the outset about whether this was achievable, as the rollout was hit by repeated setbacks during its first phase, which began in February. These included the poor vaccine uptake and shortages.

Under the first phase of the rollout, the government aimed to inoculate 1.25 million healthcare workers by early May, but fewer than 500,000 had received a jab by then. Now it appears the programme’s second phase is experiencing similar difficulties to those encountered under phase one.

Destroyed

Last week, it emerged that two-million single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines earmarked for South Africa had to be destroyed as a safety precaution.

According to US health officials, a component of the vaccine, which Aspen Pharmacare uses to complete the formula in the Eastern Cape province, was potentially contaminated at the company’s production facility in Maryland state.

Furthermore, Mr Mkhize was recently placed on special leave over allegations of corruption, and there has been a low turnout of people over 60 attending vaccination sites in some provinces including Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous.

On Wednesday Aspen Pharmacare’s executive Stavros Nicolaou sought to calm public fears over vaccine shortages, saying he expects the first locally produced Johnson & Johnson doses to hit South Africa by next week.

“We don’t foresee any problems moving forward because this is supply from a different facility and this is a supply that is not suspected to be contaminated,” he told Eyewitness News, an online media outlet in South Africa.

Earlier this week President Cyril Ramaphosa placed South Africa on level three of its five-stage lockdown in a bid to curb the rising infections. This involves the reintroduction of tougher restrictions on public gatherings, while an existing night-time curfew has been brought forward to 10pm.