vaccine covishield

Vaccine hesitancy at an all-time high in SA – Here are the facts

Published by Andile Sicetsha

To suggest that South Africa completely dropped the ball in its Covid-19 vaccine drive is an understatement.

South Africa’s vaccine drive dealt a huge blow

The country was sent into a panic, on Sunday, when Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and a panel of experts led by epidemiologist Professor Salim Abdool Karim confirmed what we all feared.

The recently acquired Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine does not hold great efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant. Mkhize revealed that the 1.5 million doses secured from the Serum Institute of India (SII) were approved based on studies that were conducted in October 2020, before the new variant began spreading.

According to Professor Shabir Madhi, who led the clinical trial of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate locally, at the time, the vaccine showed a 75% lesser likelihood of becoming infected with Covid-19.

Against the new strain, however, the study showed a substantial drop in the vaccine’s ability to neutralise the activity of the virus when tested in the lab.

“When we analysed individuals in terms of how well the vaccine worked against the variant, there was very little difference between the vaccine group and placebo group,” Madhi said.

So, what now? – Here are the facts

Essentially, the doses secured from the SII are useless in South Africa. Every effort put into delivering the Covishield doses and greenlighting the country’s vaccine programme was futile.

As disheartening as this may be, it’s not all doom and gloom, according to Prof Karim. It’s crucial for the South African government to do whatever it can to get its hands on Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson&Johnson doses, which appear to have high efficacy levels against the 501Y.V2 variant.

To get a clearer picture of where we stand in the fight against Covid-19, here are the facts on recent developments:

What will happen with the doses we have?

Mkhize confirmed that the one million Covishield doses held in storage facilities around the country will be halted indefinitely. Health department deputy director-general Anban Pillay further revealed that South Africa is in a race against time to re-enter negotiations with the SII to establish a way forward since it was discovered that the vaccine doses expire in April.

At this point, it seems unlikely that the billions spent on securing the Covishield vaccine will be refunded. The best option to pursue in this predicament is getting hold of a new batch with an extended expiry date.

When will we get more vaccine doses?

At the media briefing, Mkhize confirmed that the country’s vaccine programme would still commence in February. The health minister noted that everything is being done to ensure the arrival of Pfizer and J&J vaccine doses as early as next week.

“From next week for the next four weeks we expect that there will be J&J vaccines, there will be Pfizer vaccines,” he said.

A reminder on South Africa’s herd immunity plan

Essentially, South Africa hopes to inoculate more than 40 million of its population to achieve herd immunity. In its three-phased strategy, healthcare workers were first in line to receive shots.

But, this has obviously been scuppered by recent developments on the 501Y.V2 variant. According to Prof Karim, the government will have to adopt a new approach to immunizations.

What this will entail has yet to be revealed.

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