Half a million doses of J&J vaccine available soon to SA health workers

Claire Keeton Senior features writer
Two effective Covid-19 vaccines will soon be available to health-care workers. Stock photo.
Two effective Covid-19 vaccines will soon be available to health-care workers. Stock photo.
Image: Sasirin Pamai/123rf.com

Scientists have about 500,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine ready to offer health-care workers countrywide in an “implementation study”, J&J co-principal investigator Prof Linda-Gail Bekker said on Monday.

They are planning to start distribution of the vaccine in a week.

The J&J vaccine has proven to be the most effective against the dominant variant in SA to date. A single shot reduces the risk of mild and moderate disease by 57%, and of severe disease and death by 80%, according to recent study results.

The results of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine study in SA, released at the weekend, showed that it was not effective against mild and moderate disease caused by the dominant variant in SA, known as 501Y.V2 or B1.351.

But, said Prof Shabir Madhi of Wits University, it was likely to protect against severe disease because it produced a similar antibody to the vaccines which had proved effective, such as the J&J vaccine.

The AstraZeneca vaccine protected 75% of study volunteers against Covid-19 at 14 days after the first dose until October 31. The efficacy dropped to 22% against the new variant, which now causes about 90% of infections in SA.

As a result, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has asked scientists to deliberate on how to effectively deploy the million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine which arrived in SA last week. He paused the rollout of this vaccine to health workers this month, for the scientists to give a clear indication of the way forward.

Meanwhile, Mkhize indicated the Pfizer vaccine and the J&J vaccine were expected to be available to health workers soon.

The J&J vaccine is safe, and health workers are not being used as guinea pigs in the expansion of its study, said J&J co-principal investigator, Prof Glenda Gray, supported by Mkhize, during a briefing on Sunday night.

Mkhize said: “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has proven to be effective. We are doing an implementation study. Everyone will be vaccinated and then we will monitor what happens.”

J&J applied for “emergency use of the vaccine” in SA last week, said Gray. This vaccine has also been tested internationally on high-risk groups, with about a third of participants being above 65 years old and having co-morbidities.

Madhi said the antibody produced by the J&J vaccine was similar to the antibody produced by the AstraZeneca vaccine — making it likely that the AstraZeneca candidate would also protect against severe disease and death. Most of the volunteers in the South African study were young and healthy, and the sample size was too small to test this.

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