Health minister Zweli Mkhize: The next chapter in our Covid battle
If one were to write a tome on SA’s enduring battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, Monday would mark a new chapter — one of anticipation, hope and possibility.
This chapter would mark the start of our climax, after many pages charting the country’s 11-month campaign to best prevent the spread of infection and save lives.
Those pages would have drawn the tears of many a health-care worker who watched their patients take their last breath; described the quiet desperation of a breadwinner who lost his or her job in an economy shrunken by necessary, life-saving restrictions; and painted pictures of silent streets.
We ought to not forget these arduous verses for they help us appreciate the necessity of what is about to come.
February 1 will mark the arrival of the country’s first consignment of Covid-19 vaccines, destined for the OR Tambo International Airport from Pune, India. It is a monumental moment for many reasons: it marks the dedicated collaboration of global scientific and medical fraternities who worked to develop vaccines in record time; the culmination of months of negotiation between government and manufacturers; and the start of SA’s first phase of vaccine rollouts.
The first phase will aim to vaccinate all of the country’s front-line health-care workers across the spectrum, from surgeons to cleaners. They will be treated in the most part with the COVISHIELD vaccine developed by AstraZeneca which uses viral vector technology to build immunity.
The entry of the vaccine into the body stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies to destroy the virus. When the individual does catch the coronavirus, their immune system recognises the virus and is able to destroy it.
The efficacy, or effectiveness of the COVISHIELD vaccine against the virus, is rated between 62% and 90%. Patients will require two doses, up to four to six weeks apart.
Government has developed an Electronic Vaccine Data System to streamline the vaccine registration and rollout process, allowing us to capture all relevant data associated with the administration of the vaccine — data which will be stored on a safe database which complies with international security standards.
One can register for the vaccine online and will receive a message from the system allocating a date and venue at which they can receive their first dose as well as a dedicated vaccination code. On the day, the vaccinator will ask for an original ID, medical aid details if applicable, and the vaccination code.
Once the vaccine is administered, the system will record that one has taken the first dose and will notify that person with details of when they may return for a second jab.
According to our predictions, we need to vaccinate 67% of the adult population — about 40 milllion people — to achieve herd immunity. Of these 40 million people, 7.1 million are insured through private medical aids while 32,9 million are uninsured and most rely on state health care.
This is why we have designated Covid-19 vaccines as a public good to be delivered free at the point of care. This means that for those who are insured, payment for the vaccine will be derived from medical schemes and the vaccine will be administered free at the point of service.
For those who are uninsured, the public sector will be the preferred provider of vaccines with government providing the funding required. In this way, vaccines will also be administered free at the point of service.
Because vaccination on this scale and speed is not a familiar experience, it leaves many people uncertain about the safety and efficacy of vaccines as well as the ability of government to oversee the process — and uncertainty leaves room for misconception. While conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation are usually negligible phenomena, these clean-cut narratives which prey on pre-established suspicions have now become a formidable opponent to science and truth.
We have seen waves of different conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns contributing toward a rising ‘anti-vaxxer’ sentiment in SA – a profound danger amid a global pandemic.
In the last few months, we have seen waves of different conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns contributing towards a rising ‘anti-vaxxer’ sentiment in SA — a profound danger amid a global pandemic.
Covid-19 vaccines go through a rigorous, multi-stage testing process, including large trials that involve tens of thousands of people. These trials, which include people at high risk for Covid-19, are specifically designed to identify any common side effects or other safety concerns.
Once a clinical trial shows that a Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective, a series of independent regulators and reviewers closely study the findings before manufacturing and distribution is approved.
None of these crucial steps have been skipped. The plane which lands at OR Tambo International Airport on Monday will be the first of many. SA still expects millions of additional doses to arrive from various suppliers within the next few months.
As we turn this next chapter, we are mindful that the task ahead of us is immense.
However, there is cause for hope, now more than ever, as we harness our first real weapon against Covid-19.
When we do eventually close this chapter, let it be one that ends in victory