South African businesses considering paying for Covid vaccines

Image: Daniel Schludi

South Africa’s biggest businesses said they are “seriously considering” a request by the government to help fund the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines as the disease curbs activity in the economy.

The government has come under increasing pressure from labour unions, health leaders and opposition parties for its failure to secure any agreements with pharmaceutical companies even as at least 29 other countries begin to inoculate their populations. South Africa only expects to start getting shots for about 10% of its population in the second quarter. That deal has been arranged through the Covax initiative, which is designed to ensure poorer countries can secure access.

“Business will fully support a vaccine strategy led by the government, and particularly the department of health and national treasury, which is transparent, credible, with integrity and clearly defined and properly coordinated responsibilities and accountability,” Martin Kingston, vice president of Business Unity South Africa, the country’s biggest business grouping, said in an interview on Monday.

South Africa, with 1.1 million confirmed Covid-19 infections and about 30 000 deaths, is the worst-hit country on the African continent by the virus. It hasn’t secured a supply agreement with drug companies even though four vaccine trials are taking place in the nation. Talks are being held with manufacturers including Pfizer and BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, the presidency said on Sunday.

While health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Sunday that the country plans to immunise two-thirds of its population, or about 40 million people, he didn’t give details of the government’s funding plans. He did say assistance is being sought from business, including medical-insurance companies.

Failure to pay

The deposit for the Covax agreement was paid by the Solidarity Fund, a charity that some of the country’s richest people and biggest companies have contributed to, after the government failed to meet payment deadlines it had announced itself.

“Business has also been engaged, particularly through Business Unity South Africa, and therefore the total financing arrangement will include medical schemes, business and government with an arrangement made with the Solidarity Fund to provide a platform for collection of funds and for expedited and controlled procurement processes,” Mkhize said.  — Reported by Antony Sguazzin, (c) 2020 Bloomberg LP