MPs, Govt have debated allowing private COVID-19 vaccine imports. Here’s what they said

Mr Tendai Biti

Government is in talks with private companies and medical aid providers to import COVID19 vaccines, but procurement would only be done on their behalf by Government and vaccines must be free.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Deputy Health Minister John Mangwiro responded to appeals from Members of Parliament to open up vaccine imports to private players. Government would allow them to do so, Mangwiro said, but they cannot import on their own, and the vaccines cannot be sold.

Opposition MPs, Tendai Biti (Harare East) and Rusty Markham (Harare North) suggested that government should let private companies import vaccines, with the government only playing the regulatory role of ensuring safety and registering vaccines.

We reproduce, below, parts of that debate.

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BITI: In view of the fact that the country has only imported 200,000 Sinopharm vaccines against a population of around 16m, would it not be prudent that the drugs control council of Zimbabwe registered other vaccines approved by the WHO; the Russian Sputnik V, Sinovac, AstraZeneca, Modern, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, to allow medical aid societies, pension funds, trade unions, big corporations such as Delta and Econet, to import these registered drugs with the ministry then playing a regulatory role to ensure that our people are safe. I think this supplementary private effort will then help the people of Zimbabwe.

MANGWIRO: The 200,000 that were delivered from Sinopharm is just the beginning. We are in the process of bringing more vaccines, not only from Sinopharm, but we are also almost finished registering Sputnik, Sinovac, Indians are also producing their own vaccines. The registration process has been made easy, it now takes just a few days of all the documents are there.

Private players like medical aid societies, for example CIMAS, and other big corporates like Econet, have already approached the Ministry with the wish to help out. We have said they are welcome, they bring in their money, tell us what they want to do, but they buy via government so that all the vaccines that are bought are registered in the country, and they are brought into the country when we bring our government vaccines. So when we bring in government vaccines we also carry the private vaccines that would have been bought.

We will only monitor to make sure that the vaccines are registered here and they are going to be kept safely. We will also inspect where the vaccines are going to be stored. Or, they can come and pick up their vaccines in dribs and drabs to give to their, say, CIMA members or Econet workers.

BITI: I don’t understand the logic of the policy that you want government to pay the money to do the importation. For everything else in this country, including drugs, private companies are bringing…even food. The government should only play a regulatory role. Why don’t you allow, like every other drug, companies to import. Government should only play the regulatory role, to make sure the vaccines are registered, are safe, and kept in the proper refrigeration conditions.

MANGWIRO: Government is making sure that vaccines are safe. We also want to make sure that Zimbabweans get this vaccine for free, no matter the level. So, the private players, if they want to bring their vaccine, if there is any particular one that’s registered here, they are allowed to bring it, but make sure that it’s through government channels that they distribute it. If it’s for their workers, government workers and nurses will be making sure they monitor and help them rollout this new vaccine, no matter which one. What we are saying is; it’s government that will allow them to buy through Ministry of Finance, and making sure that they give people for free, the vaccine. We definitely will be allowing them, but we monitor how they give that vaccine, to make sure it’s safe, and that every Zimbabwean is not then put into a position where they have to buy the vaccine or are unable to access the vaccine.

The private players who have approached us, we have made it clear to them that if they are buying for their workers, or members – say CIMAS can buy for its thousands of members – via the Ministry of Finance. The vaccine comes (and) CIMAS will have the ability to distribute it, as long as we make sure that these things are closely monitored, and we don’t want to miss any Zimbabwean; any Zimbabwean who wants to be vaccinated should get the chance. It should be free for everyone.

MARKHAM: In view of the pandemic and the issues we have got, I have been inundated with a number of businesses wanting to privately import. May I humbly suggest to the Minister that a statement or advertisement be placed on how people can import. Because there are those who can afford it. Let them take that burden off the State. Let them import and I do not care who it is. If they are going to pay for it, let them do it.

MOYO:  If you allow private players like multi-national corporations to import COVID-19 vaccines, are we not shooting ourselves in the foot whereby we pave way to profiteering by the private players?

MANGWIRO: I said it several times that even the corporates, when they bring in their vaccines via Government, we want to make sure they are bringing in registered safe vaccines into the country.  However, private players like Econet are allowed to buy this vaccine for use by its workers for free as is the process and procedure.  We are not going to have people who buy the vaccine as a commercial business entity because we are very clear that CIMAS is going to buy its vaccines but the policy is it will be provided to the CIMAS clients for free. So, if the large corporates can buy, it would be good for Government and we encourage it. We would love to have many of them buying and help vaccinate their workers and other people.  So, we are not shooting ourselves in the foot because this is for free and the policy is when CIMAS buys vaccines, they are clear that the vaccine will be given to their members for free.

newZWire/PHILA