‘We can never let the supply chain run dry’: Why SA barely vaccinates on Sundays

Business Insider SA
Syringes and vials with Pfizers vaccine against Co
(Photo By Kike Rincon/Europa Press via Getty Images)
  • On Sunday, nine people were vaccinated against Covid-19 in Gauteng. In Mpumalanga, the number was one.
  • The vaccine effort almost entirely halts on Sundays, and things aren't much busier on Saturdays either.
  • South Africa is currently importing vaccine doses faster than it is administering jabs.
  • But a 10-day planning horizon – and the overriding importance of keeping the supply steady – means there are no plans for Sunday vaccinations.
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On Sunday – and, largely, on Saturday too – South Africa's effort to vaccinate people against Covid-19 takes a break.

During the course of Sunday, 6 June, nine people were registered as vaccinated against the disease in the whole of Gauteng. In Mpumalanga, the number was one. In total, 1,666 people received their shots on the day, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State.

Things were not much faster on Saturday, with a grand total of 3,923 new vaccinations recorded, according to government figures.

That is against an average daily target of well over 100,000 doses, to stick to the plan for herd immunity by early 2022 – and slower than vaccine doses are coming into South Africa.

A batch of 636,000 doses of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine – the only one currently in use in South Africa – arrives every week. Keeping up with that would require more than 90,000 injections a day, every day of the week. 

On Friday, the last full weekday for which numbers have been reported (there is an effective two-day delay in public reporting), actual vaccinations were barely over 63,000, down slightly from around 66,000.

So why are vaccines not administered on a Sunday? Because the system must be managed with a view to always keeping flow going, says Nicholas Crisp, deputy director general in the department of health and the de facto spokesperson on vaccine supplies.

"We can never let the supply chain run dry," he told Business Insider South Africa.

Rolling stock for the vaccination effort is considered over a 10-day period, with targeted use of 70,000 doses per day – so the weekly Pfizer delivery already represents less than the ideal level. Once vaccine doses arrive in-country, they must still go through regulatory clearance, and by the time they arrive at sites ready for injection "the supply chain is thin" before the next batch arrives, Crisp said.

That was due to change over the weekend, when it was hoped a pronouncement from US regulators would clear a large batch of the J&J vaccine for use in SA – and a big drive to vaccinate teachers could start. But the word never came, and there is as yet no official update on when it might.

Will the public health sector be available to vaccinate on a Sunday should a surge of J&J doses become available? The office of health minister Zweli Mkhize – who has since been placed on special leave – was not available for comment. 

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