South Africa has launched its COVID-19 vaccination campaign by injecting healthcare workers with the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson as part of an observational study.
The first health worker was vaccinated at 1 p.m. (11 a.m. GMT) on Wednesday at Khayelitsha District Hospital in Cape Town, following 80,000 doses of the vaccine arriving at Johannesburg International Airport the night before. .
President Cyril Ramaphosa, along with Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize and Deputy Minister of Health Joe Phaahla, were also among the first to be vaccinated.
“Today marks an important milestone for South Africa. Finally, the vaccines are there, and they are being administered, ”Ramaphosa told reporters as he sought to allay the fears of South Africans skeptical of a vaccination campaign that has been hit by delays and the spread of the disease. disinformation.
“I would like to invite South Africans to address this issue so that we can all be safe and we can all be healthy.”
The single-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson is the first to be used outside a clinical trial and is not yet approved for general use worldwide.
Earlier this month, the drug company asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to clear its vaccine for emergency use after preliminary clinical trial results showed it was globally effective in 66% and offered 85% protection against serious disease 28 days after inoculation. . The US regulator will make a recommendation on February 26.
In South Africa, Johnson & Johnson has received approval to use its jab for the implementation study, but it has yet to request emergency use, according to the country’s regulator.
The company’s jab has been shown to provide 57% protection against moderate to severe COVID-19 infections caused by a new, more transmissible variant, 501Y.V2 also known as B.1.351, which counts for 90% of cases in the country. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as well as the one developed by Novavax (50% protection) are the only two vaccines that have shown their effectiveness in clinical trials in South Africa against the new variant.
To date, the country has recorded nearly 1.5 million cases – 41% of infections reported on the continent – and more than 48,300 related deaths.
The vaccines received on Tuesday will be distributed to 18 identified vaccination centers, two for each of the provinces of South Africa. The study will then progress by expanding to more facilities, including in rural areas.
Within eight weeks, the country is expected to receive two more tranches of 80,000 doses and one of 60,000 on a 14-day basis.
“If we are successful in following the plan, then we will receive 200,000 more,” said Linda-Gail Bekker, infectious disease specialist and national coordinator of the vaccination campaign.
“It’s great – I’m very happy to see successful research bringing tangible results so quickly.”
Speaking to Cape Town lawmakers on Tuesday, Health Minister Mkhize said 380,000 health workers had already signed up voluntarily for the anticipated deployment which targets 500,000 medical personnel.
Overall, South Africa has secured nine million doses of the Johnson & Johnson jab, hailed as a “game changerBy health experts. The vaccine does not require a second injection and can be stored at a low temperature. In contrast, the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna should be stored at ultra-cold temperatures.
The decision to administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine came after the South African government earlier this month suspended the planned rollout of the coronavirus vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and drugmaker AstraZeneca.
The change of plans was prompted by an unpaired, small-scale study that showed the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab was doing little to protect against mild and moderate illnesses caused by the predominant new variant in South Africa.
Yet the World Health Organization expert group last week advised vaccine use, and on Tuesday, the World Health Agency granted emergency use to two versions of it.
The 1.5 million shots already purchased by South Africa will now be distributed via the African Union to countries on the continent that have expressed an interest and are not affected by the new variant, according to Mkhize.
In addition to Johnson & Johnson’s offer, South African officials say the country has secured 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, with deliveries scheduled to begin in late March. The goal is to have 40 million people vaccinated by the end of the year, or 67% of the population.
Some experts, however, viewed the plan with skepticism and criticized authorities for being too slow in ordering.
“If there is an aspect [the government] did not do a good job, ie purchasing vaccines, ”said Willem Hanekom, director of the Institute for Health Research in Africa.
Hanekom noted that the government has relied too much on the COVAX mechanism – an international partnership aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines for the poorest countries – while not acting fast enough to strike bilateral deals with manufacturers. .
“We were very late at the table and came when the vaccines were exhausted,” he said, however praising the “phenomenal job” that has been done to prevent the country from emerging from a major resurgence of diseases. infections which saw the country register 18,000 daily infections in December but drop to around 1,100 cases per day this week.
President Ramaphosa said last week that COVAX will deliver 12 million doses of the vaccine to the country. However, questions arise about the ability of companies to deliver what they have committed to, including to COVAX.
“We actually got enough doses to vaccinate everyone who will need to be vaccinated in South Africa,” Mkhize said on Tuesday, without giving further details.