PRETORIA, 09 February 2021It’s rather appalling that the government’s oversight in procuring the first batch of vaccines, which arrived in the country just over a week ago, will expire soon, leaving no time for effective roll out of phase one for healthcare workers and essential services. The silver lining of the AstraZeneca setback is that we haven’t started vaccinating yet and can choose a vaccine that works on the variants.

Furthermore concerning, is the double pricing paid to secure the vaccine and the lack of transparency in availing the clinical trial data for public scrutiny. The fact that the government conducted a secondary study to determine efficacy against the new (dominant) variant is good scientific rigor and for this we applaud Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize and his team.

We are fighting a virus that is rapidly changing, it is important for civil society, together with the government, to engage on a new roll out plan which must encompass a research component. In an ever evolving landscape civil society and inter alia our communities should have been meaningfully involved early on. 

The one million doses would have been distributed by the time they expire, it is just the ineffectiveness of the vaccine against new variants that somewhat renders them useless. They can still be used but just not effective against mild symptoms in young adults.

The misinformation and conspiracy theories being peddled on various platforms, will see heightened vaccine resistance. The first thing we ought to do is share our scientific findings on AstraZeneca vaccine efficacy with the  entire African continent. 

As civil society, we want to express appreciation for the local scientific data on vaccines. It’s really commendable that South African scientists who have generated local data on these vaccine trials, are now able to inform local policy decisions on the most ideal combination of vaccines.

What is rather worrying, is the increased number of infections and mortality rate of healthcare and frontline workers who are at the coalface of the pandemic. Not only is the challenge of vaccines it is also the challenge of PPE,  some hospitals and health facilities have a lack of PPEs or have limited PPEs. This is unacceptable and must be addressed with urgency.    

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does offer superior protection based on the current results, protecting nearly 6 in 10 people from any Covid-19 disease, and 9 in 10 people from severe symptoms and death, with once off single dose and storage at normal fridge temperature.

Although the current AstraZeneca vaccine results are disappointing, let us not dismiss it. We need to hold these claims in the same way we hold all other clinical trials. And it is for this reason we don’t think it should be returned. We only have data to justify 6 months exploration data. We must allow the Minister and his team to investigate the use of AstraZeneca for future administering.

As we await the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, set to arrive this week, as a replacement to AstraZeneca for roll out of phase one, which has proven to show a smaller decline in efficacy against the variant, this makes it a plausible choice for rollout.

What the government is doing is perfectly spot on. We view the pressure being put on the minister and government by people who can not grasp the science, as a pure tactic to discredit the fight against Covid-19. Our government is following the science.

Since the AstraZeneca vaccine is cheap and stored at normal fridge temperature, roll out is worth serious consideration, especially among healthier adults in line with current evidence. There were no cases of severe disease or death in the trial. AstraZeneca vaccine manufacturers should seriously consider a booster for the new variant, as should other manufacturers. If AstraZeneca confirmed they would release a booster at no extra cost, or very minimal, we would strongly support continued roll out among healthier adults.

In all probability the third wave is coming around June and more work needs to be done in ensuring we reduce mutants and encourage social and behaviour change, as a means to curb the spread. Alongside non-pharmaceutical preventative methods of wearing your mask, washing your hands and socially distancing as much as you can, vaccines really remain the only sustainable option of reducing risk of severe disease and death. 

However, we have reiterated, time and time again for rich countries and big pharmaceuticals to share their Intellectual Property (IP) with developing countries, so we are able to manufacture and produce our own vaccines, to ensure speedy roll out and boost the economy. We need vaccines that work and to make them, we need the know how, technology transfer and starting ingredients . Rich countries and pharmaceuticals are playing monopoly with the lives of the poor. The World Trade Organisation TRIPS waiver is a matter of life and death.

As civil society, we remain vigilant and call on the government to continue in the spirit of engagement as we push for effective community, social mobilisation and public awareness strategy. And in so doing, we must warn Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize not to call us ONLY when they have spilt milk on the floor and are now standing with a mop.


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