Cape Town – The Department of Health has refuted any inference that there was a “tussle” over vaccines between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, describing it as ’’wholly untrue’’.
In a statement on Tuesday, the department said it noted with concern an article, titled ’’Ramaphosa, Mkhize tussle over vaccines’’, published in The Sunday Independent at the weekend.
According to the Sunday Independent article, the president and the health minister differed over which vaccines to procure for South Africa and where to procure them from.
The department highlighted that neither Ramaphosa nor Mkhize are involved in the direct procurement of Covid-19 vaccines, and ’’therefore do not have individual ’preferences’ for which vaccines should be purchased’’. It slated the article for suggesting that vaccine acquisition is an issue of personal preference, calling it ’’completely outrageous’’.
The department also dismissed claims made in the article by an unnamed source that the decision to order vaccines from Johnson & Johnson was made to benefit pharmaceutical company Aspen, allegedly to repay it for donating to Ramaphosa’s CR17 campaign. According to the Department of Health, Aspen it is not an agent nor a distributor of the vaccine.
The department further cautioned the media against publishing ’’incorrect information, or purposeful disinformation, in attempts to sew division and compromise South Africa’s fight against this deadly pandemic’’.
’’The article is both malicious and factually incorrect, further making unfitting conclusions about the relationship between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize with the aid of unnamed sources quoted therein. The inference that there was a ’tussle’ between President Ramaphosa and Minister Mkhize is wholly untrue and is refuted entirely,“ the department said.
’’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 government’s Covid-19 vaccine acquisition strategy.
’’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.
’’The National Department of Health regularly receives assistance from other branches of Cabinet, as well as from the President. This co-operation, under the guidance of President Ramaphosa, means that Cabinet colleagues are ever ready to embark on initiatives relating to their line functions, which effectively strengthen our campaign against Covid-19.
’’Any suggestion of a ‘tussle’, therefore, is completely unfounded and fallacious. South Africa’s fight against Covid-19 requires a multi-faceted approach. This is why President Ramaphosa correctly convened a strong Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) comprising all the workstreams needed to facilitate the implementation of a successful vaccination programme.
’’To suggest that the IMC was created for any other purpose other than to maintain maximum co-ordination at government level is completely wrong. The IMC is working extremely well while faced with an undertaking bigger than any previously experienced.
’’The article also incorrectly states that this so-called ’tussle’ happened at the height of the country’s second wave, when Covid-19 cumulative cases breached the one million mark, and further resulted in the vaccine procurement process being delayed. In fact, South Africa breached the million mark of cumulative cases on December 27, while the peak of the second wave occurred in the week of January 4, a time by which contracts were sealed with both Johnson & Johnson and the Serum Institute of India.
’’It should be noted that neither the President, nor the Health Minister, are involved in the direct procurement of Covid-19 vaccinations, and therefore do not have individual “preferences” for which vaccines should be purchased. 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.
’’Once these recommendations are made, the subject of acquisition is then directed toward negotiations around prices, availability, delivery time lines, storage and transit requirements and so on.
’’To suggest vaccine acquisition is an issue of personal preferences is completely outrageous. The National Department of Health has indeed engaged, and is currently engaging with, most of the prominent vaccine manufacturers to secure vital vaccine doses for our citizens.
’’With regards to the SputnikV vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya Institute in Russia, we recently told Parliament 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 on this matter.
’’We are continuously engaging with the manufacturers of SputnikV, who have submitted documentation to the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) for registration. Extensive discussions have also been held with Sinopharm, with whom we have recently signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement in order to receive more information about their vaccine.
’’Another fallacy in the article relates to vaccine agreements with Johnson & Johnson. The article maliciously states that the decision to order vaccines from Johnson & Johnson was made to benefit pharmaceutical company Aspen. In fact, Aspen is a contract manufacturer commissioned by Johnson & Johnson to manufacture their vaccine; it is not an agent nor a distributor of the vaccine.
’’No orders for vaccines will be placed with Aspen; the current agreement is being negotiated directly with Johnson & Johnson. 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.
’’The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant. As announced previously, the rollout of this vaccine will proceed in the form of an implementation study through a partnership between the SA Medical Research Council and the National Department of Health. Sahpra has approved the use of the vaccine in this context.
’’Discussions were held with Aspen, but these were mainly to enquire about their level of production capacity and their time frames of deliverability after it became clear that most of our continent’s needs will be supplied by Aspen. However, no negotiations were held between government and Aspen in relation to vaccine procurement.
’’Government has engaged directly with Johnson & Johnson in that regard. Aspen has been contracted by Johnson & Johnson directly to do the ‘fill and finish’ on South African shores, which for us is a major advancement in local vaccine manufacturing which as country we need to build further.
’’President Cyril Ramaphosa has led from the front, guiding South Africa – and the continent – through its battle against Covid-19 firmly and effectively.
’’As the now former chair of the African Union, our President had taken the initiative to engage with various heads of state to leverage support for the provision of vaccines to South Africa and the African Union. He also interacted with various heads of manufacturing companies to understand issues around the provision of vaccines to the entire continent.
’’Before President Ramaphosa’s intervention, there was very little provision by manufacturers for low-income countries, in particular AU member states. He therefore appointed the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (Avatt), which secured about half a billion vaccines and laid down a financing mechanism for AU members.
’’As a result of his efforts, his successor, President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has appointed him to champion Covid-19 vaccination programmes across the continent.
’’This is an acknowledgement of the extensive work our President has done to support not only South Africans, but the rest of the continent in terms of coordinating decisive actions on Covid-19 prevention and management; mobilising support and donations; acquiring personal protective equipment; and setting up a procurement platform, namely the African Medicine Supplies Platform (AMSP) as well as the Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (Avatt), which has secured about 500 million vaccines for a continent previously marginalised because of poor resources.
’’These actions do not depict a President who has had his own interests at heart, as the article alludes to. We once again caution the media against publishing incorrect information, or purposeful disinformation, in attempts to sew division and compromise South Africa’s fight against this deadly pandemic. Only by working together can this virus be defeated.’’