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Parliament has many questions about decision to halt J&J vaccine rollout

Amanda Khoza Presidency reporter
A total of 6.6 million people have been vaccinated with the J&J shot in the US.
A total of 6.6 million people have been vaccinated with the J&J shot in the US.
Image: Alon Skuy

MPs on Wednesday expressed concern over the government’s decision to temporarily suspend the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccination rollout.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize and other senior health officials appeared before parliament’s portfolio committee on health, where he updated the nation on the J&J clinical trials and answered questions on the vaccines, procurement and progress on the vaccination programme.

On Tuesday evening, Mkhize announced that SA would temporarily suspend the J&J vaccination rollout while scientists investigated the possible link between the vaccine and a rare type of blood clot.

The US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to pause the use of the vaccination pending a review after reports that six women in the US had developed rare cerebral venous thrombosis (blood clots) in combination with low levels of blood platelets.

A total of 6.6 million people have been vaccinated with the J&J shot in the US.

NFP MP Imam Shaik asked Mkhize about the financial implications of the decision, and if SA intended continuing with the rollout in the near future.

“It would appear that these pharmaceutical companies are laughing all the way to the bank because they have put us in a very difficult position, particularly on the issue of the no fault compensation fund.

“This is over and above them saying that there is no refund. So what is going to happen if we have to cancel the Johnson & Johnson rollout?” he asked.

Shaik asked “why SA waited until the 11th hour to act on such matters, why did we not act timeously on the matter and continued working and putting our health-care workers at risk?”

The DA’s Siviwe Gwarube said the US was in a very different position because, unlike SA, they had various vaccines in circulation.

“So when we halt the J&J rollout, we effectively don’t have anything else until Pfizer arrives. Was the decision made entirely on the basis that six people out of six million had an adverse reaction? On what basis was this decision made?” she asked.

The EFF’s Naledi Chirwa said given the setbacks and challenges faced by SA, there was little confidence that the government would reach its vaccination targets.

“It is very good that we have decided to halt the J&J vaccination programme pending the outcome. What is then being done domestically to involve ourselves in the investigation process, are we having our own or waiting for the FDA to tell us the results?” she asked.

Chirwa said this was important because the monitoring of health-care workers who have received the jab under the Sisonke trial could yield some answers. “What then becomes the replacement in the interim? And if the results prove that J&J should be halted indefinitely, what then is the strategy?”

Responding, deputy minister Joe Phaahla pleaded with MPs to not be sceptical.

“There were already one million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines, with 500,000 more to be delivered. The fact that vaccines were discontinued because of the report from the trial studies which were done in SA showed limited efficacy. That clearly set us backwards,” he said.

Phaahla explained that J&J’s phase 3B trial, which was being used to vaccinate the health-care workers, “came in as a rescue plan to make sure that in the absence of large numbers of AstraZeneca doses — which couldn’t be used — we had the Sisonke trial”.

He asked MPs to have faith in the health department to clear the difficulty, which would “hopefully be limited”. He said once overcome, the delivery of the vaccine doses — as committed by the manufacturers — will happen.

“It is unfair for members to judge us on the basis of a setback with what has already been planned. I would like to ask members to be considerate,” he said.

Phaahla said like other countries, SA was in a difficult situation as the virus had not stopped wreaking havoc which resulted in the loss of lives and destabilised economies.

“I can tell you now that if we had gone ahead with disregarding the scientific reports on the AstraZeneca vaccine, we would be in the same position.”

On the lack of transparency on the part of the government, Phaahla said the procurement processes were being handled speedily and in this instance medication which was tested over a long period was not undergoing the same process.

“Because of this pandemic, many of these have to be contested and fast-tracked and in the process as we implement, all over the world, there will be challenges here and there. It is a question of balance.”


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