'I feel I let my country down' in vaccine race, says Prof Salim Abdool Karim

12 January 2021 - 15:15
By Naledi Shange
Prof Salim Abdool Karim says SA should have joined other countries in the race to create a vaccine.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu Prof Salim Abdool Karim says SA should have joined other countries in the race to create a vaccine.

“I feel like I let my country down.”

These were the words of Prof Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee.

Speaking on SAfm on Tuesday, the professor said he should have joined other global scientists and helped create a Covid-19 vaccine that would have also benefited SA.

Abdool Karim said when the virus hit SA in 2019, he had had discussions with Prof Lynn Morris, who at the time was the  interim director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases where he said he was willing to attempt to formulate a vaccine.

But Abdool Karim said he was deterred by a lack of facilities to create a vaccine in SA and the funds needed.

“We should have joined the race,” he said. “I should have been more forceful and raised the funds.”

Abdool Karim was positive about the vaccine which is expected to arrive in SA soon.

He said careful planning was needed ahead of its distribution.

The professor advised that the vaccine should be first distributed to health workers, followed by the elderly, those with comorbidities and then essential workers.

He suggested that distributing the vaccine in this order would eliminate a lot of people who are now battling with the virus and this would therefore ease the burden on the health-care system.

“We could find ourselves in a better situation in 2022. That is doable,” he added.

Another of Abdool Karim’s regrets was not joining the call for a standard international vaccine.

Meanwhile, he said, it was hard to say when SA would find itself out of the second wave or whether a third wave was on the cards.

“Looking at the earlier evidence, it looks like (this new variant of Covid-19) is not more severe at this stage but the evidence is quite strong that it’s spreading much faster,” he said. “All of the parameters of how we understand viral dynamics are based on our first wave. We have some idea of how long it took to get us to peak and we know it takes about four or five weeks from peak to (decline) — but that’s all with the first wave which was a completely different dynamic,” said Abdool Karim.

“We at this stage cannot tell for sure, based on what we know from the first wave, how the second wave is going to play out,” he added.

He said there are two basic scenarios.

“The first is when you compare the first to the second wave ... The virus spreads faster and to more people in the initial incline,” Abdool Karim said.

Explaining this, he said KwaZulu-Natal today has twice as many cases a day than it did at the peak of the first wave.

“So we are seeing a very dramatic, sharp increase to a much higher peak and for the entire country we are now seeing more cases per day than we ever saw in the first.

“What we don’t know is how long it will last. Will it burn itself out quickly by getting to a peak and then come down, or will it be like our first wave? Our first wave had about two weeks at peak and 39 days from peak to get down to the trough.

“So when you look at that comparison, I think we are likely to see a different dynamic — a shorter peak and probably a sharp decline but that’s speculation at this point,” he said,  adding that because no other country had this variant, SA couldn’t learn from others.

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