South Africa welcomes first delivery of COVID-19 vaccines

South Africa gave a hero’s welcome to the delivery of its first COVID-19 vaccines, a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa greeted the crates of vaccine that arrived at Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport. The shipment will be followed up later this month by another 500,000 doses.

The vaccine will be effective in preventing severe disease and death from the variant that has become dominant in South Africa, a vaccine expert says.

“The arrival of the first vaccines is excellent news and a step in the right direction for South Africa,” Professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, told The Associated Press.

Although the variant that has become dominant in South Africa is expected to reduce the efficacy of the AstraZeneca and other vaccines, Hanekom said initial trials indicate that all the various inoculations will still offer good protection.

“The most important point that should be emphasized is that while the vaccines offer variable efficacy in preventing infection with COVID-19, so far severe disease and death are prevented by all the vaccines," he said from his office in Durban.

"So it doesn't matter the level of efficacy, the vaccines all seem to work pretty well against severe disease and death, even against this new variant, it appears. And that is very good news," Hanekom said.

South Africa’s government intends to inoculate 40 million people, representing 67% of the country’s population of 60 million, by the end of the year.

South Africa has by far the highest number of COVID-19 cases in all of Africa, with 1.45 million confirmed cases, including 44,164 deaths, according to official figures released Sunday. That represents about 41% of all cases reported by Africa's 54 countries, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa's scramble to acquire adequate vaccines to reach that ambitious target received a substantial boost with the news that it has acquired 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. They are expected to arrive in the second quarter of the year, the government confirmed to The Associated Press.

Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize will announce the cost of the Pfizer vaccines at a later date, said Lwazi Manzi, spokeswoman for the health ministry.

In the coming months, South Africa is expecting to receive 12 million vaccine doses from the international COVAX facility, 9 million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when it is approved, and an estimated 20 million from the African Union’s vaccine acquisition task team. Further acquisitions of vaccines will be needed to meet the government’s inoculation target.

Most South Africans are looking forward to getting vaccinated, according to a recent survey. An impressive 67% of adults said they would definitely or probably take a vaccine if it was available, according to a survey by the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council.

Those who said they would definitely not or probably not take a vaccine were at 18%, according to the survey of more than 10,000 South Africans. About 15% of those surveyed said they had not decided if they would take a jab.

South African health experts are encouraged by the results of the survey, saying many of the undecided would probably get vaccines when many others are.

The South African government has already launched a social media campaign to build enthusiasm for vaccines.

Hashtags like #VacciNation and #ListenToTheExperts accompanied by attractive graphics are circulating to promote support for vaccines and to counteract rumors and misinformation about COVID-19.

“We really need these vaccines as quickly as possible,” Michael Makhethe, an ambulance driver and first aid provider who works in the Soweto area of southern Johannesburg, told The Associated Press. “We front-line health care workers are exposed to the virus in our work. We need protection.”

South Africa has recently passed its second peak of COVID-19 that was nearly double the numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the first surge. South Africa's seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has dropped significantly over the past two weeks from 25 new cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 17 to 10 new cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 31.

South Africa's rate of deaths has also begun to drop, with the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths over the past two weeks decreasing from 0.95 deaths per 100,000 people on Jan. 17 to 0.79 deaths per 100,000 people on Jan. 31.

Speaking in a broadcast address to South Africa on Monday night, Ramaphosa announced the easing of several restrictions because he said the country is now seeing declining numbers. He said the sale of alcoholic beverages will now be permitted Monday through Thursday, bars and restaurants will be permitted to sell alcohol, and the hours of the nighttime curfew will be reduced to be in effect from 11 p.m. until 4 a.m.

Ramaphosa said that the country's beaches, parks, lakes and swimming pools will be permitted to open. Public gatherings will be allowed, but limited to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.

All of the changes take effect on Tuesday.

Ramaphosa also announced that 1 billion vaccine doses have been secured for the African continent, with 700 million from the COVAX facility and 300 million by the African Union's vaccine acquisition task team.

He said 7 million vaccines have also been secured from a donation by the African telecommunications firm MTN, and those vaccines will be distributed to South Africa’s neighboring countries including Lesotho, Namibia, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Zimbabwe.

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AP journalist Mogomotsi Magome contributed to this report.

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