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Behind the scenes in the drive to vaccinate the nation: collaboratively working to stay ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic and save lives

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Behind the scenes in the drive to vaccinate the nation: collaboratively working to stay ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic and save lives

“The COVID-19 vaccination programme has truly been a matter of life and death.”

“We needed to have a single, integrated, co-ordinated approach if South Africa was going to be effective and impactful in our efforts to tackle this pandemic.”

In January 2022, Discovery celebrated a significant milestone - one million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered through its nine vaccination sites. Set up as surge capacity sites in the early stages of the government-led COVID-19 vaccination programme in South Africa, these sites have administered COVID-19 vaccinations to all South Africans, whether covered by private health insurance or not. This is but one example resulting from the extraordinary collaboration between public and private sector partners during South Africa’s COVID-19 journey, which has been illustrated in a documentary produced by Discovery featuring key events and milestones behind the scenes in the drive to vaccinate the nation.

"We wanted to highlight the power and potential of effective public-private sector collaboration for the good of all South Africans and to pay tribute to everyone involved in strengthening our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr Ronald Whelan, Head of Discovery's COVID-19 Task Team and Chief Commercial Officer at Discovery Health.

COVID-19 vaccination: Too big a challenge for any sector working on its own to tackle

In March 2020, shortly after the first person was diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Africa, business leaders met with President Cyril Ramaphosa to offer support. Business for South Africa (B4SA) was established to allow for a single coordinated and impactful approach to COVID-19.

Substantial financial and operational resources quickly needed to be mobilised and deployed to secure and administer COVID-19 vaccinations across South Africa. This required a whole-country response and unprecedented speed of delivery.

“This was too big a challenge for any sector working on its own to tackle,” says Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba, Discovery Group Executive Director and Chairman of Discovery Health. “There is no doubt that by leveraging the strengths of the public and private sectors over the past two years, South Africa’s healthcare system has been able to better respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. “

“Discovery has a long-standing commitment to supporting the development of South Africa’s health system and to public-private collaboration. Our collaboration with the National Department of Health through B4SA on the national vaccination programme was therefore a simple decision for us to take – and a privilege,” adds Dr Whelan.

The road to vaccinating a nation is paved with challenges

In December 2020, Discovery Group CEO, Adrian Gore, was asked by the National Department of Health to support the government-led initiative to procure COVID-19 vaccines for South Africa. Professor Roseanne Harris, who heads up the Health Policy Unit at Discovery Health (and is also President of the International Actuarial Association) together with colleagues from National Treasury, B4SA and the National Department of Health played an integral role in quantifying and costing the vaccination programme and developing the blueprint for the rollout.

“Considering the devastation our economy was facing and the complexity of the undertaking, assisting our government in planning and executing on the national vaccination programme was a no-brainer,” explains Prof Harris.

“We were in a global vaccine race. We had to really punch above our weight to access vaccines for South Africa,” says Dr Whelan. “We are very proud of how medical schemes worked together with the state to ensure there were sufficient resources available so that all South Africans could access vaccines free of charge.”

Head of the Discovery Health Centre for Clinical Excellence, Dr Noluthando Nematswerani adds, “At all times throughout the pandemic, we’ve faced a very uncertain future - from trying to estimate the potential impact of the pandemic on people and economies to the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines that would eventually become available, to the possibility of viral variants which could challenge their effectiveness.”

South Africa went from the high of the first AstraZeneca vaccine doses arriving in the country in February 2021 to the low of a clinical study released shortly after showing relative infectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine against the beta variant, the dominant variant in South Africa at the time.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine then became our saving grace,” says Dr Nematswerani. “However, concerns around the risk of blood clots and over this vaccine’s manufacturing process in the US, then further held up the rollout. Fortunately these hurdles were overcome, but these incidents fuelled the growing misinformation around COVID-19 and the vaccines available, which still requires ongoing efforts to overturn,” says Dr Nematswerani.

  • Through B4SA, Discovery provided extensive support, and expertise for the national vaccination programme, including setting up private sector vaccination sites across the country to supplement capacity

Looking back, Dr Whelan adds, “What really came to the fore, as we worked together, was the breadth of capabilities and level of sophistication of the systems in our country, across all spheres - operational, financial, and information systems. For instance, South Africa now has one of the most sophisticated electronic vaccination systems globally. Our Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) was built from the ground up in record time, led by the National Department of Health with the support of various private sector partners, including Discovery. This is another example of how private-public collaboration enables far more effective outcomes.”

Initially, the national vaccination programme had capacity for 160 000 vaccinations a day, well short of the target set by President Ramaphosa at the time of 300,000 vaccinations per day. “The private sector’s support was key to making up the difference. “We quickly had a plan on the table to allow the nation to vaccinate 350 000 people a day,” adds Dr Ntsaluba. “This capability then grew across the board as we moved forward.”

  • Nine sites, over 1000 employees and capability to deliver over 18 000 vaccinations each day – built within the space of two months

In early 2021 and over the course of less than three months, Discovery, in collaboration with the various provincial departments of health and other partners, established nine mass vaccination sites spread across Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Western Cape. These sites added significant additional capacity in the early stages of the vaccine programme when the demand for vaccination was high and the need to accelerate access to vaccination was critical in the face of a devastating third wave underway in South Africa at the time.

More than 1000 staff were recruited (including many individuals from the hospitality industry who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19) and deployed across these sites, with extensive management involvement from across the group.

Kim Backos, Head of Special Projects at Discovery Health, recalls her role in developing these sites. “It started with developing a blueprint for a ‘Mass vaccination site in-a-box,’ incorporating every element of what was needed to create sites that were beacons of speed and efficiency. The aim was to ensure a seamless vaccination experience through a welcoming, nurturing, and highly efficient process.”

Dr Whelan adds, “We made extensive financial and human capital investments in the establishment of these sites alongside local authorities. And we mobilised and deployed specialised teams to run each site. The logistics and planning required to run each vaccination sites are extraordinarily complex. We had to take into consideration a multitude of health and safety requirements and local government approvals. These included that all vaccinators need to be fully trained and accredited healthcare professionals; and that all accredited vaccination sites must meet stringent cold chain requirements including specialised fridges, 24/7 temperature monitoring, dedicated security, emergency back-up power etc.”

Whole country approach, heroes on the frontline

“The real heroes in the story are the men and women on the ground, both the people administering the vaccines each and every day and those who support their work. We owe them a huge thanks and special tribute which we can achieve by getting vaccinated, so that we can prevent severe COVID-19 illness and death going forward,” says Dr Ntsaluba.  

Strength in unity: Behind the scenes in the drive to vaccinate South Africa can be watched https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF9jCpXEmjM

  • The vaccination site at 1 Discovery Place in Sandton is currently open and administering COVID-19 vaccines as well as booster shots. Visit https://digitalhealth.discovery.co.za/d2hp/ui/login to schedule an appointment. The vaccination site is welcoming walk-ins for those aged 12 years and older, but this is subject to available capacity.

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About Discovery Ltd

Discovery Limited is a South African-founded financial services organisation that operates in the healthcare, life insurance, short-term insurance, savings and investment, and wellness markets. Since inception in 1992, Discovery has been guided by a clear core purpose – to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives. This has manifested in its globally recognised Vitality Shared-value Insurance model, active in over 35 markets with over 20 million members. The model is exported and scaled through the Global Vitality Network, an alliance of some of the largest insurers across key markets, including Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America and South America.

In 2021, Vitality Health International (VHI) introduced shared-value health insurance to employer groups operating in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia, as well as Travel for Treatment service to the rest of Africa.

Discovery trades on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange as DSY. Discovery Group is the holding company of Vitality Group in the USA and of Vitality UK.

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