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Govt’s choice of vaccines under scrutiny

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ZIMBABWE’S vaccination programme has come under scrutiny amid questions as to why Treasury purchased expensive vaccines whilst cheaper ones with better efficacy were on the market.

MARY MUNDEYA

The NewsHawks, working with partners including Transparency International Zimbabwe, has been looking into the use of Covid-19 resources and attendant transparency and accountability issues.

According to a report by the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) presented at the recently held Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys (PETS) parliamentary sensitisation meeting, Zimbabwe could have suffered from donation-trap diplomacy, resulting in the purchase of expensive vaccines.

Some vaccines purchased from India are yet to be delivered.

“As of 12 August 2021, Zimbabwe had received approximately 660 000 doses of donations from China, Russia and India. The vaccines include 500 000 Sinopharm doses, 75 000 Sputnik doses, 50 000 Sputnik doses from the ALROSA group, and 35 000 Covaxin doses from India.”

“Each Covaxin vaccine dose costs approximately US$20. Zimbabwe received 35 000 doses of vaccines as a donation which cost approximately US$700 000. The value of the donated doses is less than the value of the purchased vaccines as evidenced by 1 million doses purchase made to India by Zimbabwe. The estimated value of the purchase is approximately US$20 million,” the report says.

“There are other vaccines with lower prices and efficacy rates than that of Covaxin, for example Sinopharm which comes at a cost of US$5 while Covaxin is at $20. Other vaccines with better prices and efficacy rates as compared to Covaxin include but are not limited to Johnson and Johnson US$10 (72%), Sputnik US$10 (91%), Novavax US$16 (90.98%), Bharat Biotech US$2 (78%) . . .”

Concerns were also raised as to why the Zimbabwean government has approved only the use of Covid-19 vaccines mostly donated and supplied by China, yet there are other vaccines with better efficacy and competitive prices.

“Currently the Zimbabwean government has only approved the use of five vaccines, namely Sinopharm and Sinovac from China, Covaxin from India, Sputnik V from Russia and Johnson & Johnson from the USA. This is despite the fact that there are other vaccines which have better efficacy rates and more competitive prices than the current approved vaccines,” the report says.

The initial rejection and sudden acceptance of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine also raised eyebrows.

“On the 2nd of June 2021, the government of Zimbabwe turned down 3 million doses of J&J vaccines which it had been allocated under the African Union Covid-19 Vaccination Programme. The rejection of J&J vaccines happened at a time when the country was experiencing vaccine shortages. In their argument for rejection of the said vaccines, the government cited cold chain infrastructural incapacity to handle the J&J vaccine,” the report noted.

“However, the argument was not valid because the J&J vaccine requires storage temperatures ranging between 2 degrees and 8 degrees Celsius and Zimbabwe already has those cold chain mechanisms to store vaccines at the required temperature.

“One wonders whether the rejection of J&J vaccines might have been propelled by geopolitics and foreign policy inclination as Zimbabwe is an ally of China and Russia following her fallout with Western nations in 2000.”

The report says government’s decision raised a lot of questions among citizens, academia and civil society organisations.

“Some of the questions include but are not limited to the following: What are the future implications on international support in the event of other disasters, will Zimbabwe be eligible for support after this gesture? With Zimbabwe seeking to rebuild its international image and re-engagement drive, was it a prudent move to deny the AU-arranged vaccine donations?

“It was such questions coupled with the undeniable advantages of J&J vaccines over other vaccines that made the government change its decision. This is because, the decision to reject J&J vaccines defied logic and value for money audits which is the nerve-centre of public resource management since the J&J vaccines is administered as a one-dose as compared to Sinopharm and Sinovac which require two doses.

“Thus, the cost of rolling out J&J is much less than that of rolling out Sinovac, Sinopharm, Covaxin and Sputnik. Therefore, in terms of economic values and public finance management principles it was expedient for the country to accept the J&J vaccines and even consider it for purchase, given its one-dose advantage which outweighs the two-dose requirement of the four vaccines approved in Zimbabwe.”

The government has been accused of failing to ensure there transparency in the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines, personal protective equipment and other supplies.

In January 2021, the government indicated that it had set aside US$100 million for vaccines and the money was being sourced from the 2020 budget surplus.

In July 2021, the government further announced that it had used US$93 million of the US$100 million, but did not give a breakdown of exactly how the money was spent.

Chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee for Health Dr Ruth Labode said the purchase of expensive vaccines over cheaper ones could be due to the shortage of vaccines that the world was experiencing, adding it is imperative the government of Zimbabwe takes immediate action to save its people.

“The world was in a crisis and was faced with vast vaccine shortages, therefore it was imperative that the Zimbabwean government takes immediate action to secure the vaccines that were available to protect its people,” Dr Labode said.

The director of Parliament’s budget office, Pepukai Chivore, concurred with Dr Labode, saying even if shortages were a reality, the Zimbabwean government had a duty to be transparent.

“What Dr Labode is saying makes a lot of sense. At the same time, it’s also important to understand where the bone of contention is coming from. It’s important that the Zimbabwean government be accountable and open to its citizens about why some of these things end up being done so that there is transparency,” he said.

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