Health workers power up Covid-19 defences with J&J booster jabs

13 November 2021 - 11:28
Healthcare workers are coming forward for booster J&J shots before the 4th wave hits.
Healthcare workers are coming forward for booster J&J shots before the 4th wave hits.

Healthcare workers lined up slowly this week for a booster shot of the J&J Covid-19 vaccine, with about 6,000 getting a second dose of the vaccine after it became available, said Prof Glenda Gray on Friday.

The Sisonke 2 study, led by Gray and Prof Linda-Gail Bekker, from Wednesday offered healthcare workers a booster shot of the J&J vaccine ahead of a fourth wave predicted for summer.

Two doses of the J&J vaccine given 56 days apart gives 100% protection against death and severe Covid-19, and 75% against symptomatic Covid-19, the results of the Ensemble 2 clinical trial found.

Gray said in an interview: “We started slowly on Wednesday (with boosters) and had a good number to test our systems. We hope to go to scale by mid-December and be finished by the end of the year.”

“I will be going for mine next week at Bara (Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto).”

We hope to get at least half of the healthcare workers ... but we would prefer to get all of them
Professor Glenda Gray

Under Sisonke 1 from February to May, nearly 500,000 health workers were given the shot, ahead of the deadly Delta-driven third wave and the national rollout.

The J&J vaccine is a single-dose regimen, which means an individual is fully vaccinated after only one shot. This has made it the workhorse for vaccinating members of the essential services, such as teachers and the police, and residents of rural areas.

The results of Sisonke 2 could inform the government’s decisions about the timing of booster shots in 2022, said Gray.

“We hope to get at least half of the healthcare workers (from Sisonke 1 for Sisonke 2), but we would prefer to get all of them.”

Most of the healthcare workers getting the second J&J jab this week were in Gauteng and the Western Cape, with the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal also attracting numbers.

More than 350 sites across the country, with a Sisonke “champion” present, are geared up to attend to the healthcare workers and Gray will be visiting sites next week.

SA Medical Association chairperson Dr Angelique Coetzee urged doctors to get their booster J&J vaccine without delay.

“We know all the vaccines prevent severe disease and death. They are all good at that,” she said.

“Some doctors are unhappy because they would prefer to get a Pfizer booster now. The health department is looking at the Pfizer as an alternative booster, but that would not be before January.

“We know the immune response of vaccines go down after six to eight months and healthcare workers are likely to see an increase in Covid-19 cases by the end of December, or January or later, but it is going to happen  — and they need to be protected.”

Health minister Joe Phaahla said the department has received many enquiries from healthcare workers about getting a booster Pfizer shot at a briefing on Friday morning.

More than 40% of adults are vaccinated in the Western Cape and Limpopo
THIRD DOWN More than 40% of adults are vaccinated in the Western Cape and Limpopo
Image: National Department of Health

The Pfizer vaccine is approved for two doses but would have to go through regulatory approvals, for a booster shot, which could cause delays.

Gray said that healthcare workers may get a choice of the Pfizer vaccine in future, but they did not want to delay the start of Sisonke 2 by a possible six to eight weeks for this.

“We had all the data in hand for J&J on safety, immunogenicity (the ability to provoke an immune response) and efficacy,” she said.

At a briefing, Bekker said: “The good news is that we are not removing any doses from the national programme to do Sisonke 2.”

Phaahla said the study could help the government decide on its “next phase of boosters and making them available”.

Under the national rollout, a third of the adult population have been fully vaccinated since its launch in mid-May, and more than 250,000 12- to 17-year-olds have got a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Internationally Covid-19 infections have been rising, even in places with widespread vaccinations and the scientists said they were monitoring this.

“This may be a combination of things — waning immunity and maybe some more variants emerging — but the important questions are: Is hospitalisation down and are deaths down?

“With the resurgence we expect to see reductions in hospitals and deaths. That is the litmus test,” said Gray, president of the SA Medical Research Council. 

Most breakthrough infections in SA have been mild and asymptomatic, she said.

Studies worldwide show the death rates from Covid-19 are significantly lower now that vaccinations are available.