Covid-19: The cure

No Covid-19 vaccine for SA ‘any time soon’, says Prof Shabir Madhi

Top vaccinologist says we’ll be lucky to have any by mid-2021

15 November 2020 - 00:00
The chance of SA getting a significant volume of the vaccine in the next few months is “extremely unlikely”
The chance of SA getting a significant volume of the vaccine in the next few months is “extremely unlikely”
Image: 123RF/SHINYA SATOU

Don’t pin your hopes on the Covid vaccine announced this week, South Africans have been told.

The chance of SA getting a significant volume of the vaccine in the next few months is “extremely unlikely”, said Wits University professor of vaccinology Shabir Madhi. “The most highly optimistic projection is that we’d be fortunate to get any by the end of the second quarter next year.”

He said the announcement by Pfizer and BioNTech that their vaccine was 90% effective was exciting because “other vaccines using the same target may also show similar efficacy”.

But the reaction in SA should be subdued excitement. “By the end of the year, they will only be able to manufacture 40-million units,” said Madhi, “Next year they’re set to make 1.3-billion, plus bear in mind that each recipient needs two doses.”

The US has procured 100-million doses and orders have been placed by the EU, the UK and Japan.

The other problem is that the vaccine needs to be kept at -70°C, and SA has very few specialised facilities able to achieve such a low temperature. “You won’t be able to just pitch up at a pharmacy or clinic for a shot,” said Madhi. “To set up more storage facilities of that nature would take a huge amount of time and expense.” 

Also, a power cut could be disastrous. “It is so sensitive that even if you had a short power outage without adequate back-up, you would not be able to use the stored vaccines.”

Writing in the scientific journal Nature, leading US scientists said the vaccine was a major breakthrough and boded well for others in development but “questions remain”, including one about the elderly.

Florian Krammer, a virologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who was one of the participants in the vaccine’s trial, told Nature: “We don’t know yet if it works in the population that needs it most, which is the elderly.”

Another question is how long immunity from the vaccine lasts.

Even though the Pfizer vaccine may not help SA President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country was “collaborating with several multinational pharmaceutical companies” to get a safe and effective vaccine for Africa.

In his address to the nation on Wednesday, he said the government was working through the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to procure funding, with around R189bn and 750-million doses that would be needed.

A local company, Aspen Pharmacare, has entered into a “preliminary agreement” with Johnson & Johnson and “has the capacity to manufacture 300-million doses of the candidate vaccine at its Nelson Mandela Bay plant”.

A local biopharmaceutical company, Biovac, was also in “advanced discussion with an international vaccine manufacturer”, said Ramaphosa.

Many other trials continue across the globe, including three in SA.

“With our University of Oxford trial, enrolment was completed and we are now following up with participants to see who got infected,” said Madhi.

Meanwhile, South Africans fuelling transmission of the virus continue to place strain on health facilities.

While the number of active cases has fallen by about a third since November 4, Madhi said this was due to delayed reporting.

In the Eastern Cape there was the spectre of a resurgence, and while no official analysis had been done to explain the province’s spike, Madhi said it might be related to the October school holiday. 


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