‘Spectacular’ progress on vaccine rollout

28 February 2021 - 00:05
By Claire Keeton
Dr Onicca Khobo-Mpe vaccinates a  health worker as  Gauteng premier David Makhura looks on at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, Pretoria.
Image: Alon Skuy Dr Onicca Khobo-Mpe vaccinates a health worker as Gauteng premier David Makhura looks on at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, Pretoria.

By Friday, 63,648 health-care workers had received vaccinations against Covid-19 and the sleep-deprived teams providing them had exceeded targets, said professor Glenda Gray, a co-principal investigator of the Johnson & Johnson implementation study.“

We are ahead of the schedule of 80,000 in 14 days. It is going spectacularly and the demand has been overwhelming,” she said. “We will be ready for the next batch after the weekend.”

The R5m cost of a South African Airways flight that left on Wednesday to collect the next 80,000 doses from Belgium has been criticised, but Gray said there are sound reasons for the decision.

“It is the most efficient way to deliver the J&J vaccines, and it is probably the cheapest way as any stock-out would cost money. We cannot afford to have [vaccination] teams standing idle.

“It is unfortunate, but there are no direct flights from Belgium to South Africa. These vaccines are sought-after all over the world and a courier would have to provide security and guarantee the cold chain,” she said. A delay would be “penny wise, pound foolish”.

Major hospital vaccination sites in SA include Chris Hani Baragwanath in Soweto, Steve Biko in Pretoria, Groote Schuur in Cape Town and Prince Mshiyeni in eThekwini.

Gray said vaccine teams have been working long hours. “The teams are tired and we need to pace them,” she said. “We need to make sure they do not burn out. We are ironing out the hurdles ahead of taking the implementation to scale.”

Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, co-principal investigator on the J&J study, said the past 10 days have provided a “taste of what a national vaccination campaign would look like with a lot of moving parts”.

“We are on the steepest learning curve with unanticipated conundrums, especially when you are dealing with a rationed commodity and how to provide it fairly,” she said.

The immune response to the vaccine — side-effects such as fatigue, headache or fever — seem to be stronger among people with prior exposure to Covid-19, like many of the health-care workers.

“We are seeing stronger reactions to the vaccine than in the trial,” said Gray.

The only complication has been one individual who has allergic reactions to vaccines, as demonstrated with a yellow fever vaccine, but the person was fine after treatment.

Bekker said good communication with the four big stakeholders — the department of health, the provinces, the private sector and researchers — is critical. “There has been amazing collaboration,” she said.

“Every action has been well-intentioned: to vaccinate as many people as possible. It is heart-warming.”

The vaccinations have been taking place in every province, including the Northern Cape, where a research site had to be established in Kimberley.

Bekker said there are differences in how the vaccines are being provided at hospital sites: “Some are vaccinating those who are most likely to be exposed where they work, or exposed based on geography. Some are prioritising those who are likely to be exposed and have [bad] outcomes: those who are older and have co-morbidities. Some health facilities are trying to make sure as many as possible inside the facility get vaccinated.”

She said the hope is to develop a more consistent approach as health minister Zweli Mkhize’s target of vaccinating 1.25m health workers is tackled.

“If we could prioritise based on registration that would be great, but people are very anxious to get the vaccine and this means we do not always get authentic information,” said Bekker.

“I feel people’s impatience to get in line, and their frustration. I’m delighted that people are standing in queues for vaccinations. We are working as fast as we can.”

Gray said people are encouraged to vaccinate when they see their peers having jabs.

“In the beginning there was some hesitancy, but this has come to an end.”

Both reiterated how grateful they are to J&J for making the vaccine batches available to SA — the first country to provide J&J inoculations in a real-world setting.