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Healthcare workers will not be vaccine guinea pigs — health experts affirm

J&J and Pfizer vaccines expected soon

SA's health workers will receive Covid-19 vaccinations from next week.
SA's health workers will receive Covid-19 vaccinations from next week.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

Healthcare workers will not be used as guinea pigs when the country rolls out its Covid-19 vaccination programme next week.

That is the message from one of the country’s leading scientists and president of the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Prof Glenda Gray and health minister Zweli Mkhize as the country gears itself for its biggest vaccination rollout.

After disappointing news on Sunday that the AstraZeneca vaccine that arrived in SA last week is not effective against mild to moderate disease caused by the dominant Covid-19 variant in SA, known as 501Y.V2, it has emerged that health workers will from next week be vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Pfizer vaccines.

Mkhize said from next week the country expected to have the two vaccines, which had proved locally to protect against severe disease, hospitalisation and deaths related to the current variant.

Mkhize said the AstraZeneca vaccine will remain in the country “until the scientists give us a clear indication what we need to do”.

He said there is no need for health workers to be anxious as the vaccines had proved to be fairly effective.

The minister said the J&J vaccine, which is one of the vaccines tested in SA, has been used in other countries.

SA was taking an extra step with its implementation study that will see health workers all getting the vaccine and no placebo.

“It is not because we don’t know what the efficacy is, which was already proven. It is not because of a question about safety. It's a question of what do we need to change in the future? There are certainly no guinea pigs. We are not doing trial and error.”

Speaking at the same webinar as Mkhize to announce local findings regarding Covid-19 vaccines, Gray also reassured medics.

“I agree with the minister that health workers are not guinea pigs. This is not an experiment. We know from our studies that the Ad26 (J&J) vaccine starts protection from day 14 and 28 days after vaccination will protect against hospitalisation, severe disease and death. We want to protect our health workers. We want them to be protected from severe disease, hospitalisation and death,” she said.

President of the SA Medical Research Council Prof Glenda Gray said health workers must be vaccinated before a third wave of Covid-19 infections.
President of the SA Medical Research Council Prof Glenda Gray said health workers must be vaccinated before a third wave of Covid-19 infections.
Image: Supplied

“The quickest way we can bring this vaccine to health workers is in this programme. People will get the active vaccination and there is no placebo.

“The reason this is being done in a study is because we want to understand better if there are any breakthrough infections. We want to see what impact the vaccine is having on viral escape. It’s very important for us to do this to make sure our health workers are protected before a third wave,” Gray said.

Even though there is no conclusive data that the J&J vaccine protects against mild disease, she said the country could no longer afford to wait.

“The first instance is to evaluate this and get it into health workers. We can’t wait. We have local data now. It would be not good to wait for future vaccines. We have to start with the data we have.”

Mkhize said despite the AstraZeneca vaccine’s disappointing results, the country had no intention to send it back to India yet.

“The first thing we want is for our scientists to tell us what do with the AstraZeneca vaccine. That is what will guide us.”

Despite promising vaccines in the pipeline, Mkhize warned that even if the country manages to vaccinate many South Africans this year, people will need to continue wearing masks and practising social distancing and good hand hygiene “until we are able to conclude the risk of infection has abated”.

He said there are discussions about manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines locally.

The minister said President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed a team that works with him, led by minister of higher education, science and technology Blade Nzimande, which is looking into the capacity of producing vaccines in SA. A number of developing world countries are part of the discussions.

Professor Barry Schoub, chairperson of the Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee, commended local scientists for their research on Covid-19, saying new developments around the efficacy of vaccines reflects the depth of science in the country.

“The intellectual resources we have enabled us to pick up the variant, which is important to guide where we go from here. We have world class science in Southern Africa.”

“Our immediate challenge is where we go from here in the very short term.”

While the news about the AstraZeneca vaccine is disappointing, Schoub said it is not all doom and gloom.

“ We may need to look at a combination of vaccine. We need to investigate the AstraZeneca vaccine more to see if can we use it more effectively.”


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