China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which over the past year has made vaccine donations to militaries in 28 countries, has offered 300,000 free doses of the CoronaVac jab manufactured by Sinovac to the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), reports a amaBhungane investigation published in Daily Maverick.
Minutes of meetings seen by amaBhungane show that in November, the South African Military Health Service’s (SAMHS’s) command council agreed to count how many members of the army still had to be vaccinated, to determine how many CoronaVac jabs would be required.
The minutes state that the vaccine would be imported through the national health department which “will not use it, so the ordered amount must be utilised by the Defence”.
The Health Department and the Numolux Group, Sinovac’s official local partner responsible for distributing CoronaVac in South Africa, both acknowledge the Chinese offer. The Health Department says it was alerted to the offer “several months ago” and Nomulux says it was only recently drawn into preparations to import a consignment.
But the SANDF denies making plans to use Sinovac’s vaccine and refuses to acknowledge the existence of an offer to donate the vaccine to the army.
Sinovac’s CoronaVac was given conditional authorisation for emergency use by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) in July, but is yet to be included in South Africa’s vaccine roll-out programme. The preconditions include the submission of final results of Sinovac’s ongoing clinical studies and periodic safety updates.
The Health Department said it was “waiting for a formal request from the SANDF to import the donation of Sinovac for SANDF members”. It had “no idea” when the SANDF would make this request but Lieutenant-General Peter Maphaha, the surgeon-general of the military health services, “is in communication”.
Numolux said the SANDF has not confirmed whether they will be accepting the entire CoronaVac donation made by the PLA or just part of it.
Defence will use it
According to the latest version of the Department of Defence’s annual report, the SANDF has 72,322 members, including civilian support staff and part-time reserves.
Item two in the minutes of the command council meeting in mid-November states that Maphaha asked for clarity on the number of members vaccinated. “This is to have an indication of how many of the Sinovac vaccinations will be required to complete the vaccination process in the Defence,” the document reads.
The document adds that the Health Department would be the one to bring in the vaccines for SANDF to use, before noting that Sinovac “is not yet approved in South Africa”.
When amaBhungane asked the SANDF if it would be accepting the donation and making additional purchases of Sinovac to finalise the vaccination roll-out in the military, it said no. “The SANDF has no plan to use Sinovac vaccine to complete the vaccination roll-out for the military community,” said Brigadier General Andries Mahapa, director of corporate communication.
He added that CoronaVac was not approved by SAHPRA “and was never part of the national vaccine roll-out”. While the Sinovac vaccine is not part of government’s national roll-out, SAHPRA has authorised the vaccine for emergency use, taking note of a similar decision by the World Health Organization.
Similar conditions were given to other manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson during the early stages of South Africa’s vaccine roll-out programme, which limited access to healthcare workers in the Sisonke trial.
“As long as the vaccine is registered and complies with the conditions of their registration, it may be imported. But SANDF will need to request that it be imported and provided to their members through [the SA Military Health Service],” said the Health Department.
But Mahapa said military members were a part of the national vaccine roll-out and would use the vaccines provided by the Health Department. South Africa’s roll-out programme consists of two vaccines, one manufactured by Pfizer, the other by Johnson & Johnson.
Analysts have remarked that China’s mask and vaccine diplomacy is a strategic opportunity for Beijing to bolster its global influence amid growing tensions with the US, by leveraging existing bilateral relationships and building new ones.
It also has the effect of shifting attention away from the narrative that China was the source of COVID-19 after being blamed for mishandling the initial outbreak.
A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, looking at the People’s Liberation Army’s COVID-19 health outreach contributions, said the donations to foreign militaries would serve to “promote and further deepen links between the PLA and recipient military elites in those countries”.
“As military elites form important centres of power in a number of recipient countries, the PLA’s efforts could thus again be regarded as a branch of China’s larger engagement with elites in various countries,” the report states.
The discovery of the Omicron variant has increased COVID-19 medical research cooperation between Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). In a statement last Friday (10 December), the Presidency announced that South Africa had extended an invitation to scientists from Brics member states to share research and expertise on COVID-19 and its mutations.
Reports show that a flight carrying a Russian medical team and a mobile lab was dispatched shortly after.
SANDF and Chinese vaccines
The Chinese army began the military-to-military vaccine donations in February 2021 as part of Beijing’s broader efforts to proliferate Chinese-manufactured vaccines as a global public product. Around the same time in South Africa, news broke that the SANDF had not registered its members for the Sisonke trial, a mechanism to make Johnson & Johnson jabs immediately available to public and private healthcare workers while authorities processed the full licensing of the vaccine.
This meant that medical staff in the military who were eligible for a vaccine through Sisonke were not able to get access to the vaccines launched in February.
Instead, eNCA reported that in March, minutes of the military health service showed that the SANDF had held meetings with the Chinese embassy to try to secure vaccines after the defence force union threatened to take legal action against the Surgeon-General for failing to ensure that military health workers had access to the Sisonke trial.
GroundUp reported that in February, the military had already put plans in place to run its own vaccination programme from end to end, but it was not clear how this would be carried out.
In early March, the South African Medical Association said it was aware that the military health service was negotiating with the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinopharm to bring vaccines into the country as a second choice, and that they had already applied to the regulators.
The association’s chairperson, Dr Angelique Coetzee, noted that companies authorised to import products must be holders of the Section 22C licence to do so.
“We would suggest that SAMHS has a parallel discussion with Dr Anban Pillay from the [health department] about how this could be arranged as part of the national phased prioritised roll-out, as healthcare workers in SAMHS should be accessing the J&J vaccine now through the [Sisonke] trial,” she said.
COVID excess stock
Anton Arendse, chief operating officer at Numolux, said if the consignment of Sinovac were accepted by South Africa, it would come at no cost to the SANDF or the government, including any transport and storage costs once it’s in the country.
“[It] is important to reiterate that this is a government-to-government undertaking,” said Arendse. “In giving traction to this initiative, the Chinese Government, via the Chinese Embassy in South Africa, requested the Numolux Group and Sinovac to ensure that the necessary is put in place to ensure the smooth delivery of this consignment to the SANDF.”
The government is currently struggling with an oversupply of vaccines due to low uptake from eligible citizens. This has resulted in the Health Department asking manufacturers to defer deliveries to avoid stockpiling.
These consist of around 10,4m doses from Pfizer and 7,4m doses from J&J.
“By the end of February 2022, we will have received all. We’re trying to stretch it out, especially Pfizer, because of [its] shelf life,” said the department.
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