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CORRECTED-S.African health insurer Discovery in touch with vaccine makers

(Adds word ‘administrator’ in paragraph 4, changes ‘policyholders’ to ‘members’ in paragraph 8)

JOHANNESBURG, March 29 (Reuters) - South African health insurer Discovery Ltd said on Monday it was in contact with all COVID-19 vaccine producers but cannot independently source vaccines as procurement and distribution is in the hands of the government.

As in many countries, vaccine procurement in South Africa is centralised and controlled by government but the pace of procurement and inoculation has been slow, with less than 250,000 people, or just 0.5% of the population vaccinated so far.

This has prompted calls from health experts to allow the private sector to source vaccines to bolster government efforts.

“While we (Discovery) might be in contact with vaccine manufacturers, the acquisition of the vaccine and the policy for who receives it and in what sequence remains the exclusive responsibility of government, until such time as government informs otherwise,” said Ryan Noach, CEO of the company’s medical scheme administrator Discovery Health.

“We have been in regular liaison with vaccine manufacturers since September 2020,” Noach said in an emailed response to Reuters. He said the company is taking all measures to “ensure the procurement is efficient, and stock available quickly, especially for the most at risk.”

South Africa’s vaccine rollout faced a blow in early February when it decided to halt the rollout of AstraZeneca’s shots on concerns about its effectiveness against the 501Y.V2 variant that caused a huge spurt in infections late last year.

The country has since opted for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine under an “implementation study.”

In a note to the members on Friday, Discovery’s group CEO Adrian Gore said the company was aiming to vaccinate its three million adult members, with the capacity of 50,000 vaccinations per day starting in May, if vaccine supplies are on time.

“This will enable all of Discovery’s 550,000 high-risk members to be vaccinated within a few weeks,” he said.

South Africa’s Health Ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment when asked about private vaccine procurement. (Reporting by Promit Mukherjee. Editing by Jane Merriman)

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