Mass Covid-19 vaccination programme set to begin

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  • as first batch of 36 000 AstraZeneca vaccines arrive in the country

Limpho Sello

THE first batch of Covid-19 vaccines have arrived in the country as Lesotho prepares to roll out its mass vaccination programme to fight the pandemic which has infected millions of people around the world.

Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro was on hand to receive the batch consisting of 36 000 doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines when it was ferried straight from the Moshoeshoe I International Airport to the Health ministry’s headquarters in Maseru.

The vaccines arrived yesterday afternoon at the airport aboard a chartered aeroplane from Johannesburg.  They were then transported to the Health ministry’s HQ where Dr Majoro was waiting, alongside other government officials and WHO representative in Lesotho, Richard Banda.

Dr Majoro said the vaccines were part of the 430 000 vaccines the country would ultimately receive as part of the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s COVAX facility.

The COVAX facility, a fully subsidised initiative by the WHO to enable poor countries to get free vaccines, has committed to donating vaccines to cover only 20 percent of the populations of each of the 92 countries in the facility. These countries, including Lesotho, will therefore have to purchase extra vaccines to cover the remainder of their populations.

The elated premier said Lesotho could begin vaccinating its people now that it had received the first batch of the vaccines. He said more people would be vaccinated when the country receives its next batch of 132 000 vaccines next month.

“As the vaccines keep coming in, we are going to vaccinate more Basotho and this means the number of people who will be protected against Covid-19 will increase,” Dr Majoro said.

“However, we still have a long way to go because we have a population of 2 million people. We aim to vaccinate 1, 6 million people excluding children under 16 years of age who should not be vaccinated.”

Apart from the 430 000 COVAX vaccines, Dr Majoro said they were also expecting more donations from the African Union (AU) and the local business community which was busy mobilising resources to purchase more vaccines.

He said the government was working hard to ensure that the vaccination programme was completed by the end of the year.

“The biggest challenge is that there are no definite timelines as to when we will get all the vaccines we need because they are in high demand across the world,” he said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WHO yesterday issued a joint statement, saying the arrival of the first shipment of vaccines “marked the beginning of Lesotho’s recovery” from the deadly virus.

“After a year of disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic with more than 10 000 Basotho infected with the virus, almost 300 lives lost and hundreds of thousands of Basotho families affected in countless ways, the path to recovery for Lesotho can now begin with the arrival of a vaccine for Covid-19.

“The deliveries mark the beginning of what will be the largest, most complex global roll-out of vaccines in history.

“The shipment today is the first tranche of many that will be allocated to Lesotho in the coming months and year through the COVAX facility which is working to accelerate the development of and access to Covid-19 vaccines,” the joint statement said.

WHO representative in Lesotho, Richard Banda, described the delivery of the vaccines as a “momentous occasion”.

“Covid-19 has taken a toll on countries around the world and Lesotho is no exception. We know this is the first step and we congratulate the government of Lesotho, especially the Ministry of Health for its tireless efforts to protect Basotho and contain the spread of the virus,” Dr Banda said.

Although the premier and the WHO officials did not say when the vaccination programme would begin, Health Minister Semano Sekatle and some senior officials in his ministry this week told this publication in a separate interview that it was likely to begin next week. They said first priority would be given to health workers.

Other population groups would be vaccinated in subsequent phases of the programme.

They also said Basotho should not read too much into reports that the AstraZeneca vaccine had been found to be ineffective against the South African variant, of the deadly disease also known as B.1.351 or 501.V2. They said South Africa had only released preliminary findings based on a study of the effectiveness of the vaccine in just a tiny fraction of that country’s estimated 58, 6 million population. They said other countries had found the vaccine to be highly effective in preventing deaths and treating other severe symptoms of Covid-19, hence Basotho should accept it.

Apart from AstraZeneca, the government has said it will also procure the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for its mass vaccination programme.

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