Health workers won’t be guinea pigs, says Mkhize
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Johannesburg - Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has moved to calm fears that health-care workers will be used as "guinea pigs" as the government has moved to fast-track the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
This comes as the government has already halted the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine which was initially expected to be rolled out to thousands of health-care workers this week.
The country received its ordered 1 million doses of the vaccine last week from the Serum Institute of India.
Since then, research released by Wits University has shown disappointing results on the vaccine's ability to provide protection against the coronavirus variant first identified in the country in November.
Mkhize, along with a group of scientists, addressed the nation on Sunday night on the latest vaccine procurement news.
Professor Shabir Madhi from Wits University said research conducted on vaccine participants had shown that the AstraZeneca vaccine's ability to prevent mild to moderate effects of Covid-19 was diminished when tested against the 501Y.V2 variant. This is the most dominant variant in the country at present.
The results of the research, which was conducted on more than 2 000 participants last year, showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine was only 22% effective against the new strain.
Madhi described the news as disappointing. However, he pointed out that it was not all doom and gloom as there were other vaccines that had shown promise against the 501Y.V2 variant.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was one of them, having shown itself to be 57% effective in preventing the severe effects of the virus and also in helping to protect against hospitalisation and death.
This is the vaccine, along with Pfizer vaccine, that the country will be fast-tracking in the coming weeks and will be administering to health-care workers.
In his address last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated that the country would be receiving 9 million doses from Johnson & Johnson along with 20 million doses from Pfizer. These were only expected in the second quarter.
The SA Health Products Regulatory Authority has indicated that both Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer have applied for vaccine distribution in the country.
Mkhize said the two vaccines would be administered in the next few weeks, but that more scientific research would be conducted on what should happen to the AstraZeneca vaccine doses that will remain shelved for now.
SA Medical Research Council chief executive Professor Glenda Gray said time frames were crucial and that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had to be rolled out soon as there was already evidence of its ability to protect against the severe effects of the coronavirus.
"The Johnson & Johnson vaccine protects against severe disease and hospitalisation and death with the current variant. We have data from South Africa that shows that we can use this vaccine to protect against death and hospitalisation.
“And we are looking at further data about how this vaccine impacts on mild disease. It is a silver bullet. Yes, it won't protect against the sniffles, but it will protect against death and hospitalisation," she said.
Gray and Mkhize insisted that there would be ongoing monitoring of the vaccine’s effectiveness.
Deputy director-general at the Health Department Dr Anban Pillay said the department was in contact with the Serum Institute of India over the six-month expiry date of the AstraZeneca vaccine.