Zimbabwe’s vaccine procurement: what we know so far

Zim hopes to use immunisation distribution network for COVID-19 rollout (pic: Beeld/Getty)

The government has, at several points over recent weeks, announced that its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan was ready. 

As ever, government communication on a critical issue has been scattered and unsure. 

While we wait, here is all that we know so far about Zimbabwe and COVID-19 vaccine procurement, gleaned from the bits and pieces that have come out of government so far.

How many vaccines does Zimbabwe want?

The plan is to buy 20 million doses. Government’s 12-member panel of experts, led by COVID-19 Coordinator Dr Agnes Mahomva, believes that Zimbabwe needs to immunise about 60% of the population – some 10 million people – to slow the spread of coronavirus.

How many vaccines have been secured so far?

For now, 800,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine have been confirmed as heading to Zimbabwe. The first vaccines arrive on Monday; a consignment of 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China. Zimbabwe has also bought an additional 600,000 doses of the same vaccine. This lot will arrive in the first week of March. 

What other vaccines are in the works?

• Zimbabwe has formally requested its allocation of 1,152,000 doses of vaccines under the COVAX facility, the platform that aims for fair vaccine distribution worldwide. On Wednesday, Zimbabwe received the confirmation of participation from COVAX MD Aurelia Nguyen. It’s not known yet when exactly this vaccine would make it to Zimbabwe. 

• Zimbabwe is also eligible for three million doses under the African Union’s vaccine facility. For this one, Afreximbank pays for the vaccine on the country’s behalf, and the country pays off the money over a period of up to five years. Zimbabwe will have to pay US$20.5 million for all its allocated 3 010 283 doses. 

• Government is in talks to buy more vaccines from Russia and India

• Alrosa, the Russian diamond giant, has pledged vaccine donations to Zimbabwe. The company gave no details on the size of that donation. 

• After Mnangagwa met businesses, a plan was agreed for private companies to import vaccines, and keep half of the vaccines that they bring in for their staff. 

Which vaccines are we getting?

Apart from Sinopharm, Russia will also supply its Sputnik V vaccines. The other vaccines available under the AU and COVAX include Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. 

The AstraZeneca vaccine has been less effective against the South African strain of the virus. The government, weeks ago, said local scientists were researching to confirm whether we have the South African strain in Zimbabwe, as is most likely. However, as at the time of writing, no information was available from government on this. 

What happens when the vaccines arrive?

According to Dr Mahomva, even if vaccines have been deemed effective elsewhere, Zimbabwe will still subject vaccines to local tests by the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ). In the meantime, according to Deputy Health Minister John Mangwiro, the Ministry is training its staff for the eventual vaccine rollout. Government says health workers will be first in line for vaccines.

Does Zimbabwe have the distribution capacity?

It’s a question many are asking, given how complex vaccine rollout has been in even the most advanced economies. According to the Ministry of Health’s Director of Epidemiology and Disease Control, Dr Portia Manangazira, Zimbabwe will rely on its existing immunisation network to provide the backbone for vaccine distribution.  

“I am happy to say as a country we have a very robust immunisation program and the ministry through the Expanded Program on Immunisation has conducted a national readiness assessment for the COVID-19 vaccine and we have also come up with a Zimbabwe COVID-19 national deployment and vaccination strategy,” Manangazira says.

Zimbabwe’s preparation includes making sure its “cold chain” is up and running. The “cold chain” refers to the infrastructure to keep vaccines cool. The AstraZeneca, Sinopharm and Sputnik V vaccines need simple refrigeration of 2-8 degrees Celsius. Pfizer, instead, needs to be frozen at -70C, making it more expensive to distribute and hence unlikely to be chosen by Zimbabwe. 

What’s happening in the neighbourhood?

Not much. In South Africa, after delays caused by its decision to suspend the AstraZeneca rollout, the country plans to start vaccinations next week using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Across Africa, only a handful of countries – among them the Seychelles, Algeria and Morocco – have started vaccinations.