'Get a refund from your medical school': Inside Tim Noakes & Shabir Madhi’s vaccine debate

25 August 2021 - 11:00 By unathi nkanjeni
Tim Noakes and Dr Shabir Madhi had a spicy exchange on Twitter this week. File photo.
Tim Noakes and Dr Shabir Madhi had a spicy exchange on Twitter this week. File photo.
Image: Lucky Nxumalo/Gallo Images

Wits University professor of vaccinology Dr Shabir Madhi and emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town Tim Noakes heated up social media recently with their debate on Covid-19 vaccines. 

It all started after Noakes commented on a video allegedly "indicting" US White House chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci.

He questioned whether it was "finally beginning to unravel, as Dr Judy Mikovits predicted it would nearly two years ago".

Dr Judy Mikovits is a US anti-vaccine activist and former virologist, who shared scepticism about Covid-19 and the vaccine.

His comment prompted a debate, with one user suggesting hundreds of thousands of lives had been saved by vaccines. 

Noakes responded by claiming the vaccines being used in the fight against Covid-19 don’t qualify.

“Which vaccines are you referring to? Not Covid-19, since it does not qualify as a vaccine. At least not according to the definition I was taught at medical school,” he said.

Catching wind of the tweet, Madhi suggested that Noakes was wrong and should get a refund from his medical school. 

Noakes hit back, labelling Madhi's response as "unprofessional".

“Sorry you took offence to a reckless, ill-informed post on your side. The definition on a vaccine has not changed, but the technology to produce vaccines has,” Madhi then told Noakes.

Noakes disputed this, telling another Twitter user: “You are perhaps unaware that in his response Madhi 'misspoke' by stating unequivocally that the definition of vaccines has not changed recently. When in fact it has.”

Madhi also responded to suggestions the vaccine was meant to prevent infection, illness and spread of the virus.

Madhi told TimesLIVE the vaccines' effectiveness against infection and mild Covid-19 appears to wane over time, from 90% down to about 40-60%, the decline possibly compounded by the emergence of the Delta variant

“Nevertheless, protection against severe Covid-19 due to Delta is largely conserved, remaining on average of over 90% and ranging from 80% in people older than 70, and up to 100% in younger age groups,” said Madhi. 

In a statement sent to TimesLIVE, the Tim Noakes Foundation said the debate was important.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Prof. Noakes has aired his views on the negative health impact that Covid-19 has had on millions of individuals around the world. He has been especially focussed on bringing attention to our current health crisis in South Africa, noting that our nation stands to gain more should we divert our energy to a healthier population, rather than just relying on the development of a vaccine, by teaching proper nutrition and promote regular exercise to prevent diseases of lifestyle, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

"It is no secret that the aforementioned conditions, along with others, cause a far poorer Covid-19 outcome for those suffering with them than those without. 

"It’s key that we continue to highlight the key messaging of proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle amidst the roll-out of mass vaccinations worldwide, as the application of these principles will ultimately support us to develop robust immune systems that can assist to protect ourselves against future variations of Covid-19. This vital messaging has taken a backseat during the pandemic and needs to also be brought to the forefront.

"Prof Noakes is challenging and inspiring new ways of looking at health and disease, something for which he is known and respected, with a proven track record in his career. Prof. Noakes said, 'There are different possible treatments for different patients and we need to manage this and actively explore alternatives at the moment'.

"We would like to emphasise that The Noakes Foundation supports evidence based Covid-19 prevention and control guidelines. Our team and board have made their own choices concerning vaccination, many choosing to be vaccinated. All choices are respected. We encourage everyone to be personally and socially responsible and to follow their local regulations. 

"We are grateful to all the researchers and frontline workers who are working hard on finding a suitable treatment for this novel virus and caring for those infected. The Noakes Foundation supports all the evidence-based emerging research and acknowledges that there is still a lot that is unknown regarding Covid-19. However, we encourage and need novel, critical thinking and new hypotheses in the quest of curbing the virus.

What a WHO scientist says about Covid-19 vaccines

Earlier this year, World Health Organisation (WHO) scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan broke down what vaccines do and the confusion between infection and disease. 

In a lengthy post, Swaminathan explained that vaccines were designed to prevent disease and that they are authorised and used based on their ability to prevent people from getting sick.

“Most vaccines reduce the likelihood of both disease and infection but do a better job at preventing disease. Often people think that if they're vaccinated they won't get sick and they can’t infect other people, but this isn't always the case,” she said. 

“Initial studies show that new Covid-19 vaccines are very good at preventing disease, including severe disease. This means if you're vaccinated, your chances of getting Covid-19 disease are much lower than if you are not,” she added. 

Swaminathan advised that while vaccines are being rolled out, it is important for people to continue to follow the proven preventative measures.