S. Africa secures millions of Pfizer, J&J vaccine doses to fight Covid-19 variant

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South Africa has secured millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer 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, of which 500,000 would arrive over the next four weeks so authorities could start vaccinating health workers.

Another 20 million Pfizer doses were also on their way, he said. "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 World Health Organisation-backed COVAX facility would provide 12 million vaccine doses, he said. South Africa has been hit doubly hard by a second wave of Covid-19, driven by a new variant first discovered in the Eastern Cape, called 501Y.V2 and believed to be 50% more contagious than earlier versions of the coronavirus.

Nearly 1.5 million people have been infected since the pandemic began and more than 47,000 have been killed, and Ramaphosa said the economy had shrunk by 6% between the third quarter of 2019 and that of 2020, while joblessness "now stands at a staggering 30.8%".

South Africa had been pinning its hopes on the cheaper AstraZeneca shot, but scientific evidence that it is less effective against the local variant of Covid-19 than other vaccine versions had led it to switch.

"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.

He outlined a plan to revive the economy and tackle growing poverty and hunger, driven by a massive programme of spending on 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 by greatly expanding capacity, especially in renewable power.

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, the president said, adding that this will be over and above the power procurement plans already announced.