J&J vaccination rollout resumes with warnings of side effects

28 April 2021 - 13:42
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine programme for Covid-19 is set to resume. File photo.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine programme for Covid-19 is set to resume. File photo.
Image: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccination rollout programme, which was halted two weeks ago, resumed on Wednesday with strict warnings of side effects.

“We have asked members to be informed of this risk and they should also be conscious of it. We have signs out there so that people can be aware of certain signs such as headaches, dizziness, and abdominal cramps. If they have any sense of discomfort that they feel, they should make sure that they get checked so we can be on the lookout for these symptoms,” said health minister Zweli Mkhize.

The minister appeared before parliament’s portfolio committee on health on Wednesday to give an update on the latest developments regarding the J&J clinical trials, vaccines procurement and progress on the vaccination rollout programme.

SA complying with preconditions

Mkhize said the establishment of the no-fault compensation (NFC) fund, which aims to protect South Africans from potential injuries during the vaccination programme, meant that SA complied with the precondition set by J&J and Pfizer.

Contracts have now been signed with both manufacturers.

“At this point we are expecting 31 million vaccines from Johnson & Johnson. We have also concluded the contract with Pfizer and we have 30 million vaccines already confirmed,” he said.

He said phase 2 of the rollout would commence on May 17.

“We are expecting the Johnson & Johnson vaccines to land here at any time. We know that they have been manufactured, packed and are ready, they were just waiting for the final audits. We do not have unexpected challenges,” said Mkhize.

On the suspension of the J&J vaccine rollout, Mkhize said SA was compelled to temporarily pause the programme after it was discovered that some people suffered vaccine induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia in the US.

“We now agree that this should resume as of today. Our regulator, South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), has looked at the matter. The temporary pause (condition) was that now we are issuing warnings for people to always be alert that there is a possibility of such side effects.”

'Continue using the vaccines'

Mkhize said though it was very rare to develop blood clots, “the assessment globally indicates that the risk of the vaccine causing thrombosis is much smaller than the risk of getting the infection”.

“We encourage our people to continue with using the vaccines.”

He said it was important for South Africans to come forward if they suffered any side effects after getting vaccinated.

“It is important for us because we have got J&J vaccines within the next two months and they are going to be used across the country. It is also believed the vaccine induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT) is something that has been noticed in other vaccines as well, such as AstraZeneca.”

He told MPs that progress has been made insofar as assessing Russia’s Sputnik vaccine and China’s Sinovac.

“We have the latest reports indicating the progress in registration by Sahpra. We have also asked the department to request an additional 10 million of these vaccines so that we process the negotiation while the registration process is ongoing.”

Targeting front-line workers and those most at risk

On phase 2 of the rollout, Mkhize said the government would be focusing on senior citizens who are over 60 and people older than 40 who have comorbidities.

“We are also targeting largely people in the front-line setting such as teachers, police and industrial workers and those who are in community service who have got access to the public and run the risk of getting infected by the public.”

Between May and October, the government is aiming to vaccinate 16.5 million people. However, this depends on the number of vaccines available.

“The number of vaccines is going to slowly increase and when it increases, it will be able to get us to get a point where we are able to achieve the maximal output of about 250,000 per day.

“We will use some of the Pfizer vaccine study while we continue with the vaccine as well. This is just to make sure that we get the same lessons on J&J and Pfizer. All of this is on course. ”

Mkhize flagged the Northern Cape, the North West and the Free State as provinces showing an increase in the number of infections.

“The numbers are still very low compared to the total number of the population in South Africa, however. We are working to try to reduce the further spread in these particular areas.”

On the third wave, Mkhize said the department was not certain when exactly it will happen and how bad it will be.

“There are indications that it is not likely going to be bigger or worse than the second wave. Nevertheless, we want a situation whereby we vaccinate as many people as possible and without being troubled or worried about the next wave, but we are noticing that there are a number of countries who are going through this.”

He said the department was aware of concerns raised about people coming from India.

“We have been monitoring that situation and we do not have an indication that there is a direct risk to SA but we will continue to monitor it. We just need to be very vigilant.

“There have also been reports about different types of variants coming from various parts of the continent, in particular from Tanzania, and we have not got that this is the case in this country. Although it has been spotted in other parts of the continent we will get to know more because our scientists are working together.”

He said a presentation of the World Health Organisation on Africa showed that the southern and eastern parts of the continent have the variant 501Y.V2, which has been more dominant in SA.

“We will continue to do genomics sequencing to check what is happening in the other provinces so we can always be ahead of the curve.”

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