The national Department of Health has issued a statement in which it denied a weekend newspaper report that there was tension between the political principals responsible for South Africa‘s vaccine rollout plan. “The working relationship between President Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President David Mabuza, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, Cabinet and the National Coronavirus Command Council, has been one of support, value and efficiency,” Polity quotes healthy ministry spokesperson Lwazi Manzi as saying.
The report says this was in reaction to a story in the Sunday Independent over the weekend. Manzi said: “The inference that there was a ‘tussle’ between President Ramaphosa and Minister Mkhize is wholly untrue and is refuted entirely. So too are the comments made by shadowy unnamed sources quoted in the article who pass fallacious remarks about the president, the health minister and the government’s COVID-19 vaccine acquisition strategy.”
The article claimed Mkhize preferred Russia‘s Sputnik V vaccine and that Ramaphosa, supported by some members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee, was in favour of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
It also quoted a “bureaucrat” saying that Mkhize was unhappy that Mabuza, instead of himself, was appointed to lead the inter-ministerial committee to oversee the vaccine rollout, and that his views were disregarded.
According to the article, Ramaphosa preferred the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because South African pharmaceutical company, Aspen, donated to his campaign to become president in 2017. CEO Stavros Nicolaou, however, denied this and told the publication: “Aspen is one of seven contract manufacturers that J&J have commissioned around the world to manufacture their candidate COVID vaccine. Aspen’s intended role is purely that of a contract manufacturer and it does not tender, distribute, contract, sell or commercialise the vaccine to either the private or public sectors in South Africa or elsewhere. Aspen is neither an agent nor distributor of J&J.”
Manzi echoed this statement by using some phrases word for word, and added that “no orders for vaccines will be placed with Aspen”, but it’s being negotiated directly with Johnson & Johnson.
She added: “While Aspen was contracted to supply Johnson & Johnson’s needs, it does not have a direct contract with South Africa’s government. It must be made obvious to all that the role of Aspen in vaccine production is a huge value-addition to our country’s ability to build future capacity in vaccine manufacturing – an idea whose time has now come.”
Manzi also claimed in the statement that neither Ramaphosa nor Mkhize were involved in “the direct procurement of COVID-19 vaccinations, and therefore do not have individual ‘preferences’ for which vaccines should be purchased”.
Ramaphosa, however, previously said he spoke directly to heads of state about South Africa’s vaccine procurement, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ahead of South Africa’s procurement of 1.5m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India.
Manzi said: “Those responsible for this role are officials from the national Department of Health and National Treasury. South Africa’s vaccine acquisition strategy is derived from science, with the advice of leading experts within the Department of Health and those appointed to Ministerial Advisory Committees. The choice of which vaccines to procure is primarily guided by scientific findings and recommendations.”
On Sunday, following an African National Congress national executive committee meeting, Ramaphosa also announced that South Africa was negotiating with Russia for its vaccine, but Manzi noted that “there are concerns that its Ad5 component (an adenovirus vector) has been flagged for further investigation relating to its effects on those living in a community with high HIV prevalence because of previous research”.
Scientists are currently seized with detailed analyses of this matter.
The Sunday Independent alleged that President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize tussled behind the scenes over where to procure which jabs, resulting in the country’s vaccine rollout programme being negatively affected and the procurement process being delayed.
The report claims sources said Mkhize preferred Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine while Ramaphosa and some members of the ministerial advisory committee on COVID-19, allegedly rallied against the Russians in favour of the Johnson & Johnson shots.
The report said Sputnik, which some media houses tried to ridicule as unsafe, has produced over 1.2bn doses and has received orders from 15 countries around the world, including two in Africa. It said a bureaucrat close to Mkhize has alleged that Ramaphosa has been “treating the health minister like a small child.”
“Ramaphosa has no respect for Zweli, he treats him like a small child. When the pandemic broke out, the Chinese government approached the minister with a donation of over 1m personal protective equipment (PPE), but the president stopped that donation because it was going to make Mkhize shine,” the bureaucrat said.
“But the final nail that Ramaphosa hammered into Mkhize’s coffin was when he appointed Deputy President David Mabuza to lead the inter-ministerial committee that will oversee everything related to the COVID-19 vaccine. The minister was supposed to chair this committee, but he was snubbed. And now, they are doing it with the purchase of vaccines, ordering what they want and not what the health minister prefers and think is good for South Africans.”
Full Polity report (Open access)
Full Sunday Independent report (Open access)