South Africa will receive its first batch of coronavirus vaccines in January, the health minister said Thursday, 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.
Mkhize had indicated at a weekend press briefing that South Africa was hoping to receive its first vaccnes in February, adding that the rollout depended on negotiations that were under way with several pharmaceutical companies.
Thursday’s indication of a potentially earlier rollout is welcome news in a country that on Wednesday counted 21,832 new cases — a 24-hour record.
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.
South Africa will prioritise the vaccination of its 1.25 million health care 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.
The pandemic has claimed more than 31,000 lives in South Africa.
Mkhize urged patience as his ministry negotiates directly with vaccine providers, following criticism of the pace of proceedings from some unions and health professionals.
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 of a new variant in the country’s Eastern Cape region, which may be more infectious. The strain has since been detected in other countries around the world.