Picture: REUTERS/Nyimas Laula
Picture: REUTERS/Nyimas Laula

Slow supply of vaccines delays Covid-19 vaccination roll-out

By Karen Singh, Kailene Pillay Time of article published Mar 26, 2021

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DURBAN - AS THE country marks one year since a total lockdown was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa to curb the spread of Covid-19, the government conceded yesterday that it would miss its initial vaccination roll-out targets, pushing it into next year.

Experts have raised concerns about the slow pace of the vaccine roll-out programme, with about 5500 doses being administered per day.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize had initially said that the government wanted to have vaccinated 67% of the population – which is 40 million people – by the end of this year. However, a Cabinet statement yesterday said that this target had now been moved to February 2022.

While Phase 1 was expected to be completed by the end of March, with health workers targeted to receive the first round of vaccines, acting Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who addressed the media on the Cabinet statement, said the government was now expected to reach its goal by May 17.

The vaccination programme started on February 17 and had only vaccinated 207 808 people by March 24.

In terms of the new targets, Phase 2 of the vaccine roll-out would start in May and would be implemented over six months targeting 13.3 million people in vulnerable groups, essential workers and the occupational health and safety stream, including workers in sectors that were critical to the recovery of the country’s economy. Phase 3, from November this year to February 2022, would target 22.6m people.

Senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Dr Ridhwaan Suliman said if the country had attempted to reach the initial target of vaccinating 40 million people by December, it would have needed to ramp up daily doses from between 200 000 to 250 000 vaccinations.

“As part of the Johnson & Johnson research study we are administering 5 500 a day, so a significant ramp-up of more than 200 000 a day was needed to get close to that target,” said Suliman.

“It would probably take 12 to 18 months to reach the target of the rest of South Africa, if I had to guess,” he said.

Suliman said that to date, the speed of vaccination was in line with the number of doses South Africa had received as part of the implementation study.

He said while the government had indicated they had ordered 40 million doses of vaccine, the exact timing and quantities were unknown.

“There’s no doubt that as we acquire more doses, the speed of the roll-out will increase,” said Suliman.

Professor Wolfgang Preiser, who heads the Medical Virology Department of Pathology at Stellenbosch University, said there were lessons to be learnt from Phase 1 of the vaccination strategy, including the need for clear communication.

He said health-care workers had to register on two different sites, and must be listed and classified according to priority by line managers according to defined criteria.

Preiser said he was looking forward to seeing the recommendations the Vaccine Ministerial Advisory Committee would make for the next stage of the roll-out, when vaccinating moved into communities.

“This will be no mean feat – and we see how other countries are struggling with it,” he said.

Healthcare workers who spoke to The Mercury yesterday about the rollout programme had mixed experiences.

A nurse from St Andrew’s Hospital in Harding on the South Coast, who received her jab yesterday, said the communication from the government as well as the vaccination process had been handled well.

Asking not to be named, she said they had been taken to a vaccination centre to be immunised, and that a few nurses who received the vaccine had experienced bad side effects, while some opted not to be vaccinated.

Registered Nurse Debra Willemse, 52, who works at the Value Health Hillcrest Medical and Urgent Care Centre, said despite being a front-line worker with comorbidities she was told she did not currently qualify to be vaccinated.

Willemse said that after two failed attempts by her employer to register her for vaccination, she went on to a health-care workers’ site, and registered herself on the Electronic Vaccine Data System (EVDS).

An emailed response from the national Department of Health’s support centre, seen by The Mercury, advised Willemse that if she had not received a notification, it meant that she was not eligible for the Sisonke Johnson & Johnson programme.

“Your eligibility is determined by availability of vaccines and ... up until more vaccinations are available at which point the system will send an invitation to you with a voucher number to go to a certain vaccination site to get vaccinated,” the email read.

Willemse questioned why she did not qualify to receive the vaccine.

“I am on the front-line doing hundreds of Covid-19 tests a week,” she said, adding that the method of selecting which health-care workers would be vaccinated first should be scrutinised.

Jakkie Cilliers, the head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies, said South Africa did not have vaccines and the pace of the roll-out was largely determined by the availability thereof.

Cilliers said the situation would change dramatically in the next three months as more vaccines came on to the market, and the private sector was brought in facilitate vaccinations.

He said that while only the government was allowed to buy vaccines, this might soon change with a global supply build-up.

“Once you allow the private sector to supply and inoculate, the situation could change dramatically,” he said.

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