Shady Covid-19 vaccine deals as suppliers lure broke Zimbabwe with “free” doses

February 22, 2021

A reportedly broke Zimbabwe could have been lured into shady Covid-19 vaccination deals with manufacturers who are offering free doses as a bait, investigations have established.

Everson Mushava

On February 18, the government started rolling out a vaccination programme to fight the viral disease that has severely affected the economy and killed 1 430 people, after a donation of 200 000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China.

The doses will benefit 100 000 people since each beneficiary must take two interspersed jabs.

Investigations by The Standard, working in partnership with Information for Development Trust (IDT) established that the Sinopharm deal was tied to conditions that the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) has described as ‘problematic.’

The IDT is a non-profit organisation supporting journalists to report on bad governance and corruption.

China offered Zimbabwe the 200 000 doses on condition that the country would buy 1.8 million from the state-owned Sinopharm, but top government officials have refuted reports of a sweetened deal.

As confirmed by Mthuli Ncube, the Finance minister, Zimbabwe will now buy 1.8 million doses, to bring the total to two million.

Government is expecting to take delivery of 600 000 purchased doses in the first week of March.

Zimbabwe’s negotiating team, it was established, comprises Acting Foreign Affairs minister, Amon Murwira, head of the Covid-19 taskforce, Agnes Mahomva and Health and Child Care deputy minister, John Mangwiro and security sector representatives.

Their brief entails negotiating with different vaccine manufacturers to secure enough doses for 10 million people—translating to 60% of the population—to achieve sufficient herd immunity by 2022.

“China’s offer was accompanied by a condition that the donation translates to 10% of what Zimbabwe would buy from Sinopharm,” said a government official privy to the negotiations.

 Under the deal, Zimbabwe was made to meet the freight costs, added the source, and that explains the fact that government had to dispatch its own plane to ferry the free doses from China on February 15.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe, Guo Shaochun, and a Sinopharm representative signed the deal at State House in Harare the following day when the donated vaccines arrived.

 “In the deal, China simply said, we give you 200 000 vaccines as a donation, that should be 10% of what you are going to buy from us,” the insider said.

“That means Zimbabwe will get two million Sinopharm doses,” he added.

The Sinopharm template is being used for negotiations with Russia for the Sputnik V vaccine, India for the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford jabs and Johnson & Johnson, it was established.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been reported to record different levels of efficacy which ranged from 72% in the United States of America, 66% in Latin America and 57% in South Africa.

This vaccine, The Standard was told, is now preferred in Zimbabwe despite its relatively low efficacy, because it can deal with the new South African strain that is reported to already have a 61% prevalence north of the Limpopo.

 “Johnson & Johnson will donate 50 000 jabs and in response, the country will buy one million vaccines from them,” a Finance ministry official said.

 “This (purchase) will be by private players who include corporates, but this is where the abuse of resources by government officials is likely because that’s the vaccine everyone wants,” said the source.

There is lack of transparency regarding the safety and efficacy of the Chinese and Russian vaccines that Zimbabwe is currently preferring.

The AstraZeneca vaccine was found not to be effective against the South African variant.

 On Friday, government said India had donated 75 000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines and insiders said it was part of the negotiations for the country to buy more AstraZeneca doses from the Asian country.

Zimbabwe wants to buy one million doses from India, insiders said.

“Russia offered its Sputnik V vaccine after China, and has also given conditions—we give you (some for free), and then you pay for other vaccines,” said another government official.

“The demands are the same as those made by China, but how much to buy is still under negotiation,” he added.

Mangwiro insisted the Sinopharm donation had no conditions attached, but he could not disclose the terms under which the 1.8 million doses were being bought.

 “There is nothing like that. We were simply given a donation and no conditions were attached,” he said. “We are going to buy from China what we want and that is why we are also negotiating with Russia for the Sputnik V vaccine.”

A senior Finance ministry official said, with a budget of US$100 million for Covid-19 vaccines, government did not have adequate resource.

“Government has no money; it simply set a budget of US$100 million and will mobilise. The government is being arm-twisted by donors because it does not have the money.

“After purchasing 600 000 doses from China from the 1.8 million doses, the country will now need to mobilise money to pay for the remaining 1.2 million doses to be delivered in phases depending on availability of resources,” said the senior official on condition of anonymity.

Ncube told The Standard that the Sinopharm vaccine was being bought at US$5 per dose, meaning that Zimbabwe paid US$3 million for 600 000 doses.

 “The price of US$5 does not include shipping, That explains why we are sending our own aircraft to collect the jabs.

“We have tasked officials in the Ministry of Health and others to negotiate with suppliers taking into account value for money and get the best vaccine that suits our people,” said Ncube.

The Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ) has so far registered three Covid-19 vaccines namely Sinopharm, Sinovac and Sputnik V.

 “We assessed and approved the Sinopharm vaccine,” MCAZ acting director general, Richard Rukwata told The Standard.

“We have also assessed and approved the Sinovac vaccine and we are in the process for evaluating the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V.

“We can only evaluate vaccines when we receive a dossier from the manufacturer. So, we anticipate that we will be receiving more applications as time goes,” said Rukwata.

Rukwata’s statement implied that other vaccine suppliers had not yet approached them with their own offers.

John Maketo, the Zimcodd programmes manager, said government’s Covid-19 vaccine acquisition strategy was prone to corruption.

 “If that is the case (that vaccine purchases are induced by donations), then as a nation we have violated our own constitutional values and ethos built upon integrity, accountability, transparency, honesty,” Maketo said.

“Such practice is not only scandalous, but puts our national pride at stake. It violates procurement best practice and creates room for corruption, which the president has declared war against.

“Procurement must be determined by competition. Taxpayers expect highest value for their money and government is entrusted with that responsibility,” said Maketo.

Itai Rusike, the Community Working Group on Health executive director, said the government should ensure that adequate resources were made available for the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines.

 “It should also ensure that funding is not diverted from other essential services and that it does not increase the country’s debt,” Rusike said.

 “We call upon vaccine manufacturing countries not to undermine global efforts to secure equitable allocations of vaccines for all countries by disguising donations for Covid-19 vaccines and then arm twisting poor African countries to buy them. (This) thereby compromises tender procedures and that may result in corruption,” he added.

African Parliamentarians Network against Corruption Zimbabwe charter chairperson, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga said African countries should negotiate for the vaccines as a block to avoid being manipulated.

“What is clear is developed countries are looking for markets in Africa,” Misihairabwi-Mushonga said. “It is up to the African countries to negotiate as a block to avoid being manipulated.”

Zimbabwe is also expected to finally sign up to the World Health Organisation Covax facility, a global initiative to ensure equitable access of vaccines to the world’s poorest nations.

There was initial resistance from some hardliners in government who  claimed that Britain was trying to arm-twist Zimbabwe into joining the facility despite unfavourable conditions.

The country is guaranteed over one million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines by July.

A fortnight ago, Ncube extended a begging bowl to locals to finance the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines.

Private companies are seeking to raise US$60 million to but vaccines for workers and their employees.

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