File picture: Dado Ruvic/Illustration
File picture: Dado Ruvic/Illustration

J&J roll-out: Vaccination drive or a research study?

By Rudolph Nkgadima Time of article published Feb 17, 2021

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CAPE TOWN – The task of vaccinating 40 million South Africans, representing about 67% of its population, against Covid-19 by the end of the year, starts today.

Health-care workers will be first in line to receive the 80 000 doses of life-saving Johnson & Johnson jabs, which arrived in the country on Tuesday night from Belgium.

But questions on whether this programme is indeed a roll-out or a study continues, as some nurses and unions claim the government is using them as guinea pigs.

However, Professor Gail Linda-Bekker, national co-ordinator of the roll-out for health-care workers, says she was not sure what feeling like a guinea pig was, because this was a voluntary process where health-care workers may opt in or out.

The J&J jabs are being rolled out as part of an implementation study between the Department of Health and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), dubbed the Sisonke Open-label Covid-19 Vaccine Programme.

Bekker says because the vaccine had been studied in the country, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) approved an extension of the study on Monday, which allowed health-care workers to be vaccinated before the vaccine was officially licensed.

“The J&J vaccine roll-out will be carried through a programme called Sisonke, an early-access vaccine roll-out programme for health-care workers, which has been introduced while we wait for licence to come along,” she said.

In explaining why the J&J vaccines were being rolled out immediately, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said the roll-out of phase one vaccination with J&J through the Sisonke protocol was made possible by the fact the 300 000 doses of the proven and efficacious J&J vaccines were already tested and approved by Sahpra for use under study conditions.

Mkhize said: “It must be understood that our sole purpose is to save lives and protect our health-care workers. First, it is without dispute that the J&J has a 57% efficacy against the variant and is fully protective against serious illness or death. On this basis, J&J is applying for Emergency Use Authorisation and it is expected that it will be granted.”

The implementation study, similar to the final phase of a vaccine trial, will test the effects of the vaccine in the field after it is administered to around 350 000 to 500 000 health-care workers.

Mkhize said: “With this evidence we will begin vaccinating our health-care workers with the J&J vaccine. We will be doing this under the Sisonke protocol; this protocol will allow us to monitor the vaccination of health-care workers and further add to our understanding of the impact of mass vaccination.

“As more doses arrive, the service will be ramped up accordingly to ensure that we maintain a good rate of daily vaccines. Some 168 vaccinators will vaccinate approximately 48 clients a day – that is six to seven clients an hour. As more doses arrive, the service will be ramped up accordingly to ensure that we maintain a good rate of daily vaccines.”

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