South Africa will receive its first batch of coronavirus vaccines in January, the health minister said, as the continent’s worst-hit country battles a record number of infections.
“South Africa will be receiving one million doses in January and 500,000 doses in February,” Zweli Mkhize said in a statement on Thursday.
South Africa is using the vaccine made jointly by researchers at the University of Oxford and the biotech firm AstraZeneca.
It is seen as a potential game-changer in the global fight against the coronavirus, as it does not have to be stored at the ultra-low temperatures required by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna alternatives.
That could mean greater access in less wealthy countries. On Wednesday, Kenya’s health minister also said the country is expected to start receiving 24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine next month.
South Africa will prioritise the vaccination of its 1.25 million healthcare workers, Mkhize said.
Thereafter, the government hopes to be able to give the jab to around two-thirds of the population of around 60 million by year’s end.
Mkhize urged patience as his ministry negotiates directly with vaccine providers, following criticism of the pace of proceedings from some unions and health professionals.
The ministry on Thursday also announced that vaccine negotiations with Johnson & Johnson were at an advanced stage and that “developments will be announced soon”.
The country of 60 million people has reported by far the most coronavirus cases in Africa, with more than 1.1 million confirmed infections, including 31,368 deaths, representing more than 30 percent of all cases on the continent of 1.3 billion.
Hailing the start of what he called a “historic process”, Mkhize said the ministry would do its utmost “to ensure the efficient and effective roll-out of the vaccine for our health workers”.
“We urge the public to be patient with us as we continue to engage manufacturers. Our commitment remains to save and protect the lives of our people,” he added.
The first wave of the virus had typically seen South Africa’s daily confirmed cases hover around 12,000 back in July.
But August saw the emergence in the country’s Eastern Cape region of a new variant, which may be more infectious. The strain has since been detected in other countries around the world.
South Africa announced record highs of 21,832 new confirmed cases and 844 deaths late on Wednesday.
Some of the country’s hospitals are already reporting that they are at capacity.