THE Health ministry has refused to grant the private sector permission to purchase the Russian Sputnik V to fight Covid-19.
Health Minister Semano Sekatle yesterday said they could not allow the private sector to procure the vaccines as they had not been approved for use by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The stand-off between the government and the private sector over the vaccines could hamper the government’s plans of vaccinating about 1, 6 million people before the end of the year.
An order for the vaccines was supposed to have been placed last month after the private sector raised over M40 million to augment government efforts to ensure that every eligible person in Lesotho is vaccinated against the pandemic.
The money was raised by the Sam Matekane-led private sector fundraising initiative.
Dubbed Sesiu Sa Letšoele Le Beta Poho, (unity is power), the initiative aims to procure Covid-19 vaccines to complement the free vaccines the government has received under the COVAX facility.
The COVAX facility is a fully subsidised initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to enable poor countries like Lesotho to get free vaccines covering 20 percent of their respective populations. Lesotho has approximately 2, 1 million people and 20 percent amounts to about 400 000 people.
This means that the country will have to procure its own vaccines for the remaining people to be vaccinated excluding those who are under the age of 16. The Ministry of Health has said those below the age of 16 will not be vaccinated due to safety concerns as the vaccines have not been tested on people in that age bracket.
Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro launched the private sector fund last month at Mr Matekane’s MGC building in Maseru.
At the time of the launch, Mr Matekane said they had sought quotations from the manufacturers of the Johnson & Johnson; Sputnik V; Sinopharm and Pfizer vaccines. He said only the Sputnik V vaccines from Russia was readily available.
The private sector subsequently sought authorisation from the Health ministry to place an order for the Russian vaccines.
However, the request was turned down.
Mr Sekatle yesterday confirmed that his ministry had refused to authorise the procurement of the Sputnik V vaccine by the business community. He said his ministry would not yield to any pressure to approve the procurement of the vaccines before it was approved by WHO.
“We are unable to authorise the procurement of vaccines that have not been approved by the WHO,” Mr Sekatle said in an interview with the Lesotho Times.
“Sputnik V has not been approved by the WHO. Therefore, we are unable to give them the authorisation. They must buy vaccines that have already been approved. There are lots of vaccines that have been approved by the WHO and Sesiu must buy from those. We are protecting the lives here. Buying vaccine is not the same as buying clothing,” added Mr Sekatle.
In a separate interview, Sesiu executive secretary Phafane Nkotsi yesterday said the government had told them that it would only authorise the purchase of the Russian vaccine when it had been approved for use by WHO.
“The ministry’s authorisation letter will enable us to secure 1, 1 million doses of the vaccine to vaccinate about 66 percent of the nation,” Mr Nkotsi said.
“Towards the end of January this year, we wanted to purchase 800 000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but the Health ministry stopped us from doing that because it had not yet been approved by the WHO. However, the American medicine regulatory authority, Food and Drug Authority approved the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for emergency use in the US in February.”
While the WHO had not yet approved the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the time, officials in Health ministry asked Sesiu to nevertheless engage the manufacturer because of the FDA is “more robust than WHO”.
Unfortunately, he said, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had run out of stock.
Sesiu then sought for alternative vaccines and found three produced in China and Russia.
“The manufacturers indicated that if we put in an order at the end of March, the vaccines would be delivered on 27 May. We made them aware that Lesotho did not have a medicine regulatory authority and that the Health ministry entirely depended on the WHO for medicine approval.
“The manufacturer was confident the WHO would have approved the vaccine within the period and we would then be given authorisation on condition that the vaccines were approved by WHO. If that failed within 60 days, then the manufacturer would stop the delivery on the understanding that Lesotho does not have a medicines regulatory authority which can approve medicines outside of WHO.
“That is where our problem is; the Health ministry cannot authorise the procurement because it only uses WHO approved medicines.”
He said Lesotho was now in a predicament of being at the end of the list countries that have ordered vaccines despite efforts by the business community to quicken the process.
The business community sacrificed and raised funds but the impasse between Sesiu and the Health ministry could see Basotho only accessing vaccines after two years, he said.
Mr Nkotsi said the delays would leave Basotho vulnerable to a third wave of Covid-19 infections while also disrupting the already fickle economy.
“The further we delay vaccinating the majority of the nation, the dire the economic and health consequences when the third wave hits us.
“We honestly do not know what is preventing Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro from intervening. I think it boils down to how the government has traditionally interacted with business. It is a tight rope because at first, people at the Health ministry were suspicious that we wanted to run a parallel structure, which is wrong.”