Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the government cut out dealing with middlemen to procure vaccines because of fear of over-pricing, corruption and possible defective vaccines.
In an interview with News24, Mkhize said talks with one company – acting as a middleman between the manufacturers and the government – was abandoned when they asked for four times the price of vaccines offered by manufacturers directly.
“There is a huge backlog in the whole world and some of the countries that have ordered five times or eight times their population requirements have still not gotten the exact amount of vaccines.
“Now it’s possible you may fall into a trap of desperation and you can actually be hoodwinked, you have to be very careful of all those kind of things,” he said.
The minister said South Africa did not want to burn its fingers as it did less than a year ago in procuring personal protective equipment (PPE) and diagnostic kits amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw middlemen over-charging the government, defective stock being delivered and wanton corruption.
“There are some middlemen who offered us vaccines. One, for example, offered us at the cost of about four times the price that we were already negotiating with the manufacturers.
“We asked them why would [they] do that, and they said, well, we have the stuff here with us… If it turns out it is corruption, who do you explain it to?”
Mkhize said they had learnt from the PPE debacle and could not have a repeat of last year.
“The second problem is that, if we get it from a middleman, we have to go through a long extent to verify the authenticity of the supplier.
“We just had a big problem now, when we were dealing with PPEs. We ended up with PPEs with difficult sizes and bad quality.
“What we found during the PPE time, and with the diagnostic kits as well, sometimes you can have the company used to register the stuff, and when it is time for delivery, you find the stuff is replaced with something which is not the same as what the original company promised.”
Mkhize said formidable progress had been made in vaccine negotiations and he insisted the government would make good on its commitment to vaccinate two-thirds of the population.
One million vaccines from the Serum Institute of India would be delivered by the end of this month, while another 500,000 would be delivered next month.
“The problem with a lot of people here, they think this thing is so simplistic. Because the UK was able to do it, South Africa should be able to do it – it’s not quite like that.”
When asked what the difference was, the minister said it was a matter of resources.
He said: “The difference is that other countries got more resources than what the South African economy has. They could actually put in money and, even if that money was lost, it is fine.
“You can’t do that in South Africa. Tomorrow, you will be hanged for spending money. You will be criticised for money down the drain.”
Mkhize said if there was a delay in talks it was because the government had to look at the reasonable probability of success in vaccine trials first.
The government has been criticised for its tardiness in securing bilateral agreements to procure the vaccine, but Mkhize said the government could not do what other countries did: pre-order without proof that the trials would be successful.
“Our system doesn’t work like that. We wouldn’t be able to put money into something we cannot prove will work. There was no way we could have done that,” he said.