MEMBERS of Parliament on Tuesday grilled Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga on the efficacy and possible side-effects of the Chinese-donated Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine.
Chiwenga was questioned over several grey areas, including the lack of information about the vaccine, leading MPs to accuse government of experimenting on Zimbabweans.
Harare East MP Tendai Biti (MDC Alliance) said it was not clear why the government was choosing Sinopharm, which was not even the preferred remedy to deal with the virus in China.
Zimbabwe on Monday received over 200 000 doses of Sinopharm from China.
“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 The Sinopharm drug itself has not yet been peer-reviewed and has not been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO),” Biti asked.
“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 questioned the government silence on the Covax facility, which had become a contentious issue between the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe with senior government officials accusing the UK of wanting to armtwist Harare to sign for it.
He also said the budgeted US$6 million for vaccines was inadequate.
“In your statement, you were referring to a budget of US$6m. Even to buy a herd of cattle in Matabeleland South, US$6m is not enough. What is the budget for COVID-19 vaccines that will be sufficient to vaccinate the people of Zimbabwe?”
Makoni South MP Misheck Mataranyika (Zanu PF) questioned why MPs were not placed on the priority list as frontline workers while also advocating for teachers to be prioritised if schools are to reopen soon.
Kadoma Central MP Muchineripi Chinyanganya (MDC Alliance) questioned whether the vaccines were effective against the new South African variant that has hit Zimbabwe.
MDC-T MP Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga asked the logic behind using over 15 vaccines.
“Are there choices to the vaccine that you are having because you cannot have a mixture of the Russian vaccine and have the Indian vaccine tomorrow, particularly in circumstances where you are dealing with pregnant women? Are pregnant women going to be vaccinated also? Are there serious problems associated with getting vaccines for pregnant women?” she asked.
There have been reports that the Sinopharm vaccine is not suitable for pregnant women and those with suppressed immune systems.
Chiwenga had to summon a team of “scientists and experts” to help him respond on issues he was not familiar with.
“Government has come up with a budget of $100m and the private sector has also come up with their budget to contribute towards vaccines. An account has been opened where the corporates are putting their money and all this is under the Finance ministry. The corporate sector is co-operating,” Chiwenga said.
He added: “As I said earlier, life cannot be bought. We want to make sure that every life in Zimbabwe is saved, no matter the person is rich or poor. We want that life to be saved.”
The VP said the government would try to get vaccines that suit every condition.
On the efficacy of Sinopharm, Chiwenga said: “The Sinopharm was approved by WHO and it was attenuated and that is why we chose it. My deputy (John Mangwiro) is the one who went to get the delivery and we are also taking Sinovac because it was approved by WHO.”
He said government had already signed for the Covax facility, adding that it was doing all it can to facilitate the vaccination of Zimbabweans.
On the effectiveness of the vaccines against the South African variant, Mangwiro said: “These viruses mutate on a daily or weekly basis. There is no country that will say everyday they make a vaccine against each mutant. The vaccines we are getting now — for a vaccine to be on the market, it would have been looked at for at least not less than six to eight months. The vaccines we are getting now, the studies started last year using a particular virus that they saw that time.
“People will start making vaccines according to the variants and we will be following the virus from behind. There is no way we can say the UK has this variant, now make the vaccine. It is impossible. You need a year. By the time you finish making it for the variant that is there now, next year you will have 100 more variants,” he said.
Other questions included whether or not Zimbabwe was gambling with people’s lives by testing the vaccine in just 48 hours.
“Is it practical to test the vaccine by our scientists in just 48 hours? Is this not dangerous trial and error with people’s lives? This one I want to correct the question. What I understand is that he thinks that the vaccine has to be tested there and then. This thing when it comes here, it is already tested like I said, in those phases, and then it has already been proved to be effective and safe,” Mangwiro said.
Others questioned reports that those with HIV and on chemotherapy would not take the vaccine.
In response, Mangwiro said: “I am not sure where the writer got that message from because immunosuppression does not mean HIV only. Diabetes is a chronic inflammatory disease and it is an immunosuppressive disease. That is not a correct supposition that people with HIV cannot take the vaccine. People with diabetes or hypertension and cancer can take the vaccine. People with cancer have massive immunosuppression because of the cancer — it is an immunosuppressive disease, they can take the vaccine.”