South Africa has secured millions of doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to fight a highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that is dominant in the country, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
During a televised annual state of the nation address, Ramaphosa said on Thursday the continent’s hardest-hit country had secured nine million doses of the yet-to-be approved J&J vaccine, of which 500,000 would arrive over the next four weeks so authorities could start vaccinating health workers. Another 20 million Pfizer doses have also been secured, he added, with deliveries expected to begin at the end of March.
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“Driven by a new variant of the virus, this second wave was more severe and cost many more lives than the first wave,” Ramaphosa said. “We must undertake a massive vaccination programme to save lives and dramatically reduce infections.”
In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO)-backed COVAX facility would provide 12 million vaccine doses, he said.
The one-shot J&J vaccine has not yet been authorised for general use in any country. In South Africa, it has only been approved for use in studies.
The company has applied for emergency use permission from the United States Food and Drug Administration and South Africa’s regulatory authority after preliminary clinical trial results showed it was 66 percent effective overall and offered 85 percent protection against severe illness 28 days after inoculation.
South Africa’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has assured the public that the J&J vaccine is safe, pointing to the fact that it has been tested on 44,000 people so far.
The clinical trials of the J&J vaccine that were carried out in the United States, Latin America and South Africa showed an efficacy rate against moderate to severe infection of 72 percent, 66 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
The drop in efficacy in the South Africa trial, which has been seen with other vaccines, is linked to the new variant, which appears to be more resistant to the body’s antibody response. Still, the J&J vaccine offered high protection against severe illness in the South African trial.
South Africa has been hit doubly hard by a second wave of COVID-19, driven by the new variant that is believed to be 50 percent more contagious than earlier versions of the coronavirus.
Nearly 1.5 million people have been infected since the pandemic began and more than 47,000 have been killed, and Ramaphosa said the economy had shrunk by six percent between the third quarter of 2019 and that of 2020, while joblessness “now stands at a staggering 30.8 percent”.
South Africa had been pinning its hopes on the cheaper Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, but scientific evidence that it offered minimal protection against mild-to-moderate COVID-19 disease had led it to switch.
“While it should not delay the start of the vaccination programme by much, it will affect the choice of vaccines and the manner of their deployment,” Ramaphosa said, referring to the switch away from the shot developed by the University of Oxford and drugmaker AstraZeneca.
On Wednesday, the WHO recommended the Oxford-AstraZeneca offering, despite concerns raised by nations, including that it may not be suitable for those above 65.