South Africa has kicked off its vaccination campaign against COVID-19 by injecting healthcare workers with the shot developed by Johnson & Johnson as part of an observational study.
The first healthcare worker was inoculated at 1pm (11:00 GMT) on Wednesday at the Khayelitsha District Hospital in Cape Town, following the arrival of 80,000 vaccine doses at Johannesburg’s international airport the night before.
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President Cyril Ramaphosa, along with Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla, were also among the first to be vaccinated.
“This day marks a milestone for South Africa. Finally, the vaccines are here, and they are being administered,” Ramaphosa told reporters as he sought to allay any fears among South Africans sceptical about an inoculation drive that has been hit by delays and the spread of misinformation.
“I’d like to invite South Africans to take this up 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 anywhere in the world.
Earlier this month, the drug company applied to the United States’ Food and Drug Administration to authorise its vaccine for emergency use after preliminary clinical trial results showed it was 66-percent effective overall and offered 85-percent protection against severe illness 28 days after inoculation. The US regulator will make a recommendation on February 26.
In South Africa, Johnson & Johnson has received approval for the use of its jab for the implementation study but it has not yet applied for emergency use, according to the country’s regulator.
The company’s jab has been shown to offer 57 percent protection against moderate to severe COVID-19 infections caused by a more transmissible new variant, the 501Y.V2 also known as B.1.351, which counts for 90 percent of cases in the country. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, along with the one developed by Novavax (50 percent protection) are the only two vaccines that have shown efficacy in clinical trials held in South Africa against the new variant.
To date, the country has registered nearly 1.5 million cases – 41 percent of the continent’s reported infections – and more than 48,300 related deaths.
The vaccines received on Tuesday will be distributed to 18 identified vaccine centres, two for each of South Africa’s provinces. The study will then progress by branching out to more facilities, including in rural areas.
Within eight weeks, the country is expected to receive two other tranches of 80,000 doses and one of 60,000 on a 14-day basis.
“If we successfully move through the plan, we will then receive 200,000 more,” said Linda-Gail Bekker, infectious diseases specialist and national coordinator of the vaccination drive.
“This is terrific – I am so glad to see successful research bringing tangible results so quickly.”
Addressing lawmakers in Cape Town on Tuesday, Health Minister Mkhize said 380,000 healthcare workers had already voluntarily registered for the early rollout that is targeting 500,000 medical staff.
Overall, South Africa has secured nine million doses of the Johnson & Johnson jab, hailed as a “game changer” by health experts. The vaccine does not require a second shot and can be stored at low temperatures. By contrast, the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have to be kept 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 in plans was prompted by a non-peer reviewed and small-scale study that showed that the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab did little to protect against mild and moderate disease caused by the new variant that is predominant in South Africa.
Still, the World Health Organization’s panel of experts last week recommended the use of the vaccine, and on Tuesday the global health agency granted emergency use to two versions of it.
The 1.5 million shots already purchased by South Africa will now be distributed through the African Union to countries on the continent that have indicated an interest and that are not affected by the new variant, according to Mkhize.
Besides the Johnson & Johnson offering, South African officials say the country has secured 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, with deliveries expected to begin at the end of March. The goal is by the end of the year to have immunised 40 million people, or 67 percent of the population.
Some experts, however, have looked with scepticism at the plan and criticised authorities for being too slow in placing orders.
“If there is one aspect [the government] didn’t do a good job, that is vaccine procurement,” said Willem Hanekom, Director of the Africa Health Research Institute.
Hanekom noted that the government relied too much on the COVAX mechanism – an international partnership set to guarantee equitable access to vaccines for poorer countries – while failing to move fast enough in securing bilateral deals with manufacturers.
“We were very late at the table and we came when vaccines were sold out,” he said, praising, however, the “phenomenal job” that was done to help the country emerge from a major resurgence in infections that saw the country register 18,000 daily infections in December but dropping to about 1,100 daily cases this week.
Ramaphosa said last week that COVAX would provide 12 million vaccine doses to the country. Questions loom, however, over companies’ capacity to deliver what they have committed to, including to COVAX.
“We have actually secured enough doses to vaccinate all the people who will need to be vaccinated in South Africa,” Mkhize said on Tuesday, without giving further details.