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‘How quickly can we roll them out?’ — Health products regulator on Covid-19 vaccinations before third wave

04 May 2021 - 13:30 By unathi nkanjeni
SA would make a 'dent' in Covid-19 infections if it vaccinates more citizens ahead of a possible third wave during winter. File photo.
SA would make a 'dent' in Covid-19 infections if it vaccinates more citizens ahead of a possible third wave during winter. File photo.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi/Sunday Times

As SA prepares for the second phase of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) chairperson Prof Helen Rees says the real challenge will be the pace at which people are vaccinated to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

On Sunday, SA received the first batch of 325,260 doses of the Pfizer BioNTech’s double-shot vaccines. 

According to health minister Zweli Mkhize, the country is expecting approximately the same number of doses to arrive on a weekly basis to total more than 1.3 million doses by the end of May.

Speaking on Power 98.7, Rees acknowledged the importance of receiving vaccines but worried that the third wave of infections may cause a “dent” in the vaccination process. 

“Every time we get an arrival of the J&J [Johnson & Johnson] or Pfizer vaccine it’s a huge step forward because as we all know the faster we can roll out the vaccine the better,” said Rees. 

She said the pace of the vaccine rollout will not only protect individuals but those most vulnerable with comorbidities.  

“It is also going to make a dent if we experience a third wave if we have vaccinated more people. By vaccinating people we’re also going to have an impact on emerging variants, so getting this now is incredibly important. The real question is how quickly can we roll them out,” she said. 

The second phase of the vaccine rollout is expected to begin on May 17 and run until October 17.

In April, Mkhize guaranteed the number of people to be vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccines would increase from 10 million to 15 million.

Third wave expected in winter

Leading epidemiologist Prof Salim Abdool Karim said SA was likely to experience the third wave of Covid-19 infections during winter. 

“When I look at the trends, there is a reasonable likelihood we may see the third wave at the end of June and in July. That is when we are mostly indoors,” Karim said in a recent  interview with SAfm

He said only a few countries would be in a position to avoid a third wave of infections due to their vaccination rollouts.

“What we should be doing is trying to do our vaccinations as quick as possible so we vaccinate the majority of our health-care workers and the elderly before the next wave comes so it is less severe,” he said.

Abdool Karim said whether SA experiences a third wave and when is partially dependent on people’s behaviour and whether there was a new variant.

New variant on SA shores?

On Monday, Dr Caroline Maslo, senior clinical adviser and head of infection control in  Netcare’s hospital division, said a person who recently travelled from India to SA was being treated for Covid-19 in a KwaZulu-Natal hospital, but it is not yet known which variant of the virus they contracted.

A new Covid-19 variant, B.1.617, was first detected in India. The variant contains two key mutations to the outer spike portion of the virus, referred to as E484Q and L452R.

Both are separately found in many other coronavirus variants, but this is the first time they have been reported together.

The B.1.617 variant has already been reported in 17 countries, including Germany, Belgium, the UK, Switzerland, Singapore and Fiji.

Speaking on 702, National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) acting director Prof Adrian Puren said the institute cannot rule out the possibility the B.1.617 variant might already be in SA.

“When we look at all the other variants in circulation, it is possible the B.1.617 variant, first detected in India, has reached our shores because of travel,” said Puren. 

“It is critical for us to have a track and trace and quarantine process activated to ensure we have reduced transmission. What is important is that these variants have higher transmissibility and are able to evade immune responses.”