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Politics vs Science: Zimbabwe’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout

Government is caught between science and perception as it rolls out the first phase of the Covid-19 vaccination drive using the Chinese engineered Sinopharm.

There’s also a diplomatic statement attached to why Zimbabwe chose its “all weather friends” ahead of other approved vaccines from the West such as Johnson and Johnson that was embraced by South Africa.

As such, many fear that Zimbabwe might have opted to put politics ahead of science. 

Hard-pressed with questions the establishment made sure the country’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga who doubles as health minister was the first person to be publicly vaccinated. With a live example, President Emmerson Mnangagwa in a statement said, “Thank you to Vice President and Health Minister Constantino Chiwenga for showing Zimbabwe that this vaccine is safe for all our people.”

But people’s concerns are valid.

In China where the vaccine is manufactured by the state owned pharmaceutical giant of the same name it was rolled out on an “emergency run” and administered to a paltry one million people.

Biotechnology scientists that spoke to CITE argue that it’s dangerous to roll out a vaccine before the end of the third cycle of trials.

They gave an example of Peru which in December briefly stopped trials of the vaccine after a volunteer reacted badly.

“Clinical trials are a research program and if you give the public something inconclusive that’s dangerous,” said a scientist from the University of Zimbabwe.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) fact sheet, Sinopharm is yet to complete third stage trials- the last before a medicine or vaccine is certified.

Sinopharm’s third stage trials were approved/ authorized in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, China and the only African country being Egypt.

A few notable vaccines have been approved by WHO and these are the British- Swedish Oxford-Astrazeneka, American Johnson and Johnson, American Moderna and German-American Pfizer-BioNTech. Thus Sinopharm’s efficiency is a self-reported 79 %.  

Russia’s Sputnik V also due in Zimbabwe has not yet been approved for use in many countries. As such, Sinopharm is seen by many as China’s bid to win the vaccine diplomatic race.

Hence opposition legislator Tendai Biti of the MDC Alliance grilled Vice President Constanino Chiwenga on how and why the government opted for Sinopharm.

“Why have you registered for Sinopharm?  The Sinopharm drug itself has not yet been peer-reviewed and has not been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“In China itself, Sinopharm is not the dominant drug. The dominant drug is actually Sinovac. So why are you accepting from China a drug that Chinese themselves are not using?” Biti asked.

Government sources revealed that the 200 000 donation was a sweetener as the government promised to buy 600 000 doses but later the figure went up to 1,8 million.

There’s a fake Sinopharm instruction manual that went viral on social media  claiming the vaccine is not suitable for use by pregnant women, the elderly (over 60 years of age), those living with HIV, diabetes and hypertension.

The aforementioned groups make up a sizable community of Zimbabwe’s population estimated to be slightly above 15 million as per 2012 census count. 

Before it was fact checked many feared rolling out Sinopharm could have far reaching effects, but just like any medicine there are shortcomings in its actual use. 

Hence responding to questions, the country’s Chief Coordinator of Covid-19 Response in the Office of the President and Cabinet Dr Agnes Mahomva said the government was fully aware of possible shortcomings and a lot would be done along the way to alleviate problems.

“They (vaccines) all have some issues. It’s up to us to pay attention to that science that tells us which people should not be vaccinated.  There are certain parameters we have to follow for people like pregnant women and so on,” she said.

“There’s also no single vaccine that would take care of all Covid-19 variants,” she added as she explained that Sinopharm is not the only vaccine that will be used in the Covid-19 fight.

She added that the country was still studying the Sinopharm vaccine instructions and there’s a lot to learn along the way.

“We are not experimenting, we are being careful and gathering all data. We will know who should or should not be vaccinated with this particular vaccine. Please as you write your stories give accurate information because we are all in this together,” she said.

She concluded by saying that for Zimbabwe to know how effective (percentage) Sinopharm is would be through data collected after people are vaccinated and everything is recorded as science dictates.

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