SA’s Covid-19 vaccines are expiring earlier than planned — and we only found out when they got to the country

‘These vaccines came through with an expiry date in April, which we only identified upon arrival,” said health DDG Anban Pillay

Deputy President David Mabuza and President Cyril Ramaphosa at the OR Tambo International Airport on Monday, where they celebrated the arrival of the country’s first Covid-19 vaccines. However, officials realised after the arrival that the vaccines were expiring earlier than they had planned.
Image: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

It was only when the first million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine arrived at OR Tambo airport last week that health authorities received a surprise: the shots were expiring well ahead of what had been planned for.

There was much fanfare on Monday last week when the doses arrived on an Emirates fight, in the pouring rain, at the country’s largest airport.

President Cyril Ramaphosa — who would address the nation just hours later, singing the benefits of the now-landed vaccine — was on the tarmac to cheer on the arrival of the plane. Alongside him was his second-in-command, David Mabuza, and health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, as well as other dignitaries.

But the celebration was seemingly short-lived, as it was only after the vaccines — manufactured by the Serum Institute of India — were inspected did officials realise that they were expiring earlier than expected.

This shocking admission was made on Sunday night during a question-and-answer session following a press briefing on the effectiveness of the vaccine against the current dominant Covid-19 variant in SA, known as 501. V2 or B. 1.351.

Health department deputy director-general Anban Pillay said: “Look, the expiry date on the vaccines ordinarily are six months. These vaccines just have a six-month expiry date.”

This means that it could be reasonably be assumed that the vaccines would last into the middle of the year. However, this was found not to be the case.

“Unfortunately, these vaccines came through with an expiry date in April, which we only identified upon arrival,” said Pillay.

He said the country was now speaking to the Serum Institute of India “for an extension of the date, if that’s possible”. Alternatively, he said that the country was seeking an exchange of the stock “so that we can have vaccines with a long expiry”.

“We are just waiting for a response on that,” he said.

The expiration date will give another headache to health officials, with Mkhize saying on Sunday night that the vaccine rollout was put on hold because of findings that the AstraZeneca vaccine was not effective against mild and moderate Covid-19 infection from the B. 1.351 variant.

BY Matthew Savides

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