South Africa was quick to impose a strict lockdown and rigorous testing at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but its vaccination schedule can be described at best as a stutter – despite having the worst rate of mortality of the African continent.
In January, the country finally seemed out of the blocks – and faster than other African countries in procuring vaccines – but the rollout has since slowed.
With only 0.5% of the population vaccinated, South Africa lags behind Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
The government has had to postpone its goal of injecting 40 million South Africans, or about two-thirds of the population, by December to next March.
And as winter approaches, a third wave of coronavirus infections is causing concern – especially as not all frontline health workers have been trapped yet.
Critics say if officials had planned for better millions, instead of 300,000, they would be vaccinated now. Last year, the government said firmly how seriously it takes the virus and how closely it follows science.
Yet when the time came to secure the vaccines, the country seemed to rely on their delivery through the Covax global sharing program.
The idea behind this initiative was to pool resources to support vaccine development to ensure that all countries receive an equitable supply of effective vaccines.
But richer countries have apparently hampered its effectiveness by making deals with manufacturers securing a supply, which means Covax has struggled to get enough doses.
AstraZeneca vaccines rejected
Aside from Covax, South Africa’s vaccination program had other issues.
The country finally struck a deal in January to buy the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India, paying more than double the amount billed to the European Union.
Then, in February, a study in South Africa of some 2,000 people found that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild and moderate cases of the most common variant of the coronavirus in the country.
As a result, the vaccination program was suspended and South Africa sold its million doses to the African Union.
Professor Shabir Madhi, who led AstraZeneca’s trials in South Africa, said the sale was a mistake because vaccines already purchased should have been used for people at high risk.
“The AstraZeneca will continue to protect against serious illness, even if it did not protect against mild and moderate cases,” local media said.
“Selling our AstraZeneca vaccines was a miscalculation on the part of our government; a mistake that delayed us by months in terms of rolling out our vaccination.”
In February, the country became the first in the world to administer the single-dose Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine after studies showed it had a higher rate of protection against the South African variant than other injections. .
Johnson & Johnson delay
It was issued before its license was granted as part of a trial, known as the Sisonke study, to vaccinate healthcare workers.
However, it also posed a hurdle in early April when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspended it after finding six people had developed a rare blood clot after receiving the vaccine.
South Africa followed suit, saying it needed time to consult with local health experts on how to proceed.
The suspension was lifted later in the month, but unlike the United States, South Africa had not had the luxury of switching to another vaccine during J&J’s suspension.
“The lesson here is to really consider the risk / benefit ratio before making such a decision,” the Businesstech website said quoting Professor Madhi.
This is a sentiment shared by Dr Mvuyisi Mzukwa of the South African Medical Association, an advocacy organization for doctors.
Learn more about the Covid crisis in South Africa:
“At the time of the US decision, we had our own data from over 200,000 health workers who were part of the Sisonke trial,” he told the BBC.
“What the government should have done was first look at this data and see if there had been any reports of a similar problem rather than just copy and paste what the United States was doing and stop abruptly the trial. “
“ Delays create suspicion ”
Dr Mzukwa is concerned that the way the J&J question may contribute to the reluctance to vaccinate.
“It may generate more suspicion now. The government will need to make a concerted effort to assure communities, in their own language, that the vaccine is safe to take, otherwise we may find ourselves facing a reluctance to vaccinate and we cannot not. afford that in vulnerable communities. “
And some have the nervousness, such as Johannesburg-based insurance salesman Langa Mavuso, who told the BBC he would not receive the injection unless it becomes mandatory, although the World Health Organization. health says vaccines are safe, with some experiencing only mild side effects.
“Personally, I don’t want to be the first to get the vaccine. What if there are irreversible problems?”
Even physiotherapist Donna Dudley is nervous but can receive the injection to protect her patients.
For Johannesburg real estate agent Eniel Noeth, it all comes down to safety: “I am happy with the delays as I believe testing is still going on during this time and hopefully when improvements have been made to the vaccines. “
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize acknowledges that any break was not an overreaction and dismissed accusations that the vaccination schedule had been hit and miss.
And he doesn’t anticipate further delays, announcing recently that the country has now secured a total of 51 million jabs from various manufacturers to deliver in installments during the year:
J&J – 31 million (single dose required)
Pfizer / BioNTech – 20 million (two doses required) – the first batch arrived Sunday evening and a local drug factory will also begin marketing the vaccine later in May.
The vaccinations will then be done in three phases:
From early May – not all health workers have been stung yet
From May 17 – people over 60 and those with other health problems
From around November, the general population.
But for some, the plan is just too slow.
“Hundreds of people walk in and out of the store every day, yes we are taking measures to protect ourselves but I want the vaccine so I’m sure I have done everything to protect my family,” said Thembeka Mnisi, store manager and mother of two told the BBC.
Professor Thumbi Ndung’u, deputy director of the African Institute for Health Research, says there is an emergency in light of the new waves and mutations.
“We need to vaccinate people at a much faster rate than we are currently doing,” he told the BBC.
“It is important that our government learns lessons from other countries like India on how devastating this virus can be.”