Dr Zweli Mkhize vaccine update: Five important things you need to know

Published by Andile Sicetsha

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize issued a detailed update on the vaccine issue South Africa faces since it was discovered that AstraZeneca doses are essentially ineffective against the 501Y.V2 variant of Covid-19 that is prevalent within our borders.

This announcement, made by the minister and a panel of scientists led by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, created a wave of panic that’s fuelled vaccine hesitancy in the country.

Many have questioned the government’s handling of the vaccine acquisition. How did they not know that the AstraZeneca vaccine was ineffective against the 501Y.V2 variant? And, what’s with the expiry date? Why did South Africa purchase 1.5 million doses of the vaccine at $6 per dose when insufficient data was available to support its efficacy against the variant?

According to the minister, the government had no choice but to commit to securing the vaccine as fast as possible with existing efficacy data on the original Covid-19 strain.

“All vaccines were developed on the basis of the original SARS-COV-2 variant that was prevalent throughout the world. The government’s process of procuring vaccines preceded the discovery of the 501Y.V2 variant and other variants. Before the efficacy results, South Africa could not delay receipt of the vaccine batches to await the results of the efficacy studies by our scientists, as this would have relegated the country to the back of the line for vaccines due to global shortage of supplies,” he explained.

The focus, he said, was to learn from the hurdle and move forward with an actionable plan to address the desperate need for vaccines in South Africa.

Vaccine update: Five important things you need to know

To breakdown the minister’s address, we have listed five important things you need to know about the way forward:

The expiry date of AstraZeneca was not discovered by chance

Contrary to reports, the expiry date of the AstraZeneca vaccine was not discovered by chance, after the first batch of doses was dropped off at OR Tambo International Airport last week.

According to the minister, this information was received when quality assurance inspections were done a while ago. The plan, after all, was to make use of all the doses in the Phase 1 drive before the ‘date of expiry’.

AstraZeneca vaccine will not be refunded – Other uses will be found for it

Unfortunately, South Africa can’t return the AstraZeneca vaccine to the Serum Institute of India (SII) in exchange for a full refund. That’s just not how it works.

The best bet for the government is to return the batch to India in exchange for fresh doses with an extended expiry date. This will allow enough time for further tests to be done on the vaccine against the variant spreading in South Africa.

While the vaccine’s efficacy levels are low, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no use for it. More of this will be explained once the World Health Organisation (WHO) concludes its findings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson is the premier vaccine of choice

Right now, South Africa’s vaccine of choice is the Johnson & Johnson range which, according to the minister, shows high efficacy levels against the 501Y.V2 variant.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant and the necessary approval processes for use in South Africa are underway,” Mkhize said.

These are the other vaccine manufacturers South Africa is negotiating with

Much of the J&J vaccine will be used in the Phase 1 rollout. There are other candidates in play and the government is in advanced talks with multiple manufacturers to secure more effective doses of the following vaccines:

  • Pfizer;
  • Moderna;
  • Sputnik-V; and
  • Sinopharm

Phase 1 vaccine drive could be rescheduled for March 2021

Mkhize confirmed that once all necessary checks and balances have been concluded, we could get the first batch of the J&J vaccine as early as next week.

However, due to mandatory safety protocols, the vaccine drive will most likely be pushed back to March 2021.

“The roll out of vaccination will proceed in the form of an implementation study with the partnership of the Medical Research Council and the National Department of Health vaccination sites across the country. This will provide valuable information about the pandemic in the post-vaccination community and thus, ensure early identification of breakthrough infections should they occur amongst vaccinated health workers,” the minister explained.

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