Covid-19 vaccine rollout: Chinese, Russian vaccines for SA?

13 June 2021 - 00:04 By Amanda Khoza, Claire Keeton and Tanya Farber
On Thursday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said SA had officially entered the third wave, led by Gauteng, North West, Free State and Northern Cape.
On Thursday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said SA had officially entered the third wave, led by Gauteng, North West, Free State and Northern Cape.
Image: Sasirin Pamai/123rf.com

Acting health minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane will meet Johnson & Johnson executives tomorrow in an attempt to save SA's stuttering Covid-19 vaccination rollout.

The talks follow Friday's ruling by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) that only two batches of the vaccine from a Baltimore factory are safe. This means 2-million doses at SA's Aspen Pharmacare in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) may have to be dumped.

Amid alarm at the size and acceleration of SA's third wave, particularly in Gauteng, Kubayi-Ngubane hinted yesterday at a stricter lockdown.

Speaking at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, she said: "We cannot ignore the fact that [the FDA ruling] has taken our vaccine rollout a bit backwards."

She said the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority had been asked to fast-track assessment of the Sinovac (Chinese) and Sputnik (Russian) vaccines.

Kubayi-Ngubane said her department was preparing recommendations to the government.

"The system is showing signs of being under pressure in terms of the numbers, with Gauteng reporting the most numbers," she said.

"The interventions cannot speak to Gauteng only because we need to ensure that we protect the other provinces."

Kubayi-Ngubane and Gauteng premier David Makhura said a health department intervention team was being sent to the province, where hospitals are running out of intensive-care beds and patients are being given oxygen in a car park while waiting to be admitted.

Makhura said the "fire was raging", with a dramatic increase in hospital admissions and in deaths. "The test positivity rate is extremely high, about 24% in the province."

Gauteng has nearly 10 times more new cases a day than the other provinces at the start of the third wave. The epidemic has officially claimed 57,600 lives in the past 67 weeks with the real death toll estimated at more than three times that.

Wits University professor of medicine Francois Venter warned this week: "Gauteng numbers are escalating at a scary rate and that spells disaster for the country as it is our most populous province.

"ICU admissions and deaths are rising. There are no reports of services being overwhelmed, but hospitalisations trail infections by two weeks, so it is coming. The third wave appears to be far worse in some provinces than in the first two waves," he said.

Pulmonologist Dr Frans Skosana, who works at Netcare's Olivedale Hospital, tweeted on Thursday: "We are running out of beds for Covid patients. Hospitals are full. Calls from other hospitals looking for beds, and colleagues asking for a favour for a family member [are] a bad sign. I am concerned."

Johannesburg resident Naomi Hill, who took a family member to Netcare's Milpark Hospital last Sunday, said staff were treating patients in the car park.

"There were four ambulances on the tarmac which could not offload patients because the emergency room was full," she said. "There were three cars with ours where staff came out to put up a drip and oxygen. They were calm and professional," she said.

After a few hours, the family member was transferred to a pop-up ward in the car park before being moved to casualty, then to a ward.

That night queues of cars lined up outside Sandton's Sunninghill Hospital casualty unit. Early in the week oxygen tankers were seen on the freeways in Johannesburg.

The continued closure of Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital is exacerbating the shortages of critical care beds, according to reports.

Jacques du Plessis, managing director of Netcare's hospital division, said the group had suspended "non-urgent surgeries requiring post-operative critical care to free up capacity where needed".

"As Covid-19 cases in Gauteng increase, we continue to monitor the situation closely and adjust our strategy to make the most effective use of our resources while maintaining an abundance of caution," he said.

On Thursday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said SA had officially entered the third wave, led by Gauteng, North West, Free State and Northern Cape.

The same day, the Western Cape head of health, Dr Keith Cloete, said the acceleration of cases in the past two weeks showed that "the province is entering into a third wave".

SA's biggest medical aid, Discovery Health, warned of an "alarming increase in infections in specific areas around the country". It said the number of members in hospital with Covid-19 had multiplied by a factor of almost five from the beginning of May.

Nationally, there are about 7,400 hospitalised Covid patients. Biostatistician Lise Jamieson, a senior researcher at the Wits Health Economics & Epidemiology Research Office, said the trend was worrying.

"Daily hospital admissions have increased substantially in five provinces, with some nearing the peak numbers of the second wave," she said.

By Friday night, only 1,210,258 people had received a single dose of a Covid-19 vaccine since the national launch on May 17, apart from the 479,768 health workers fully vaccinated under the Sisonke study.

The rollout is constrained by the availability of Pfizer/BioNTech doses, coming into SA in batches of 636,000 every two weeks.

A spokesperson for the health ministry, Lwazi Manzi, said: "All the doses delivered by Pfizer to date have been distributed.

"The last shipment did not need clearance because it belonged to a batch that was already cleared.

"The next shipment is due [on Monday] and will be 636,000 as well."

Kubayi-Ngubane said 300,000 J&J vaccines arriving on Tuesday "are not within the batches that are said to have been contaminated, so there is no need for anyone to fear the vaccines in terms of rollout".

For now there is no shortage of vaccinations, she said, "but we do anticipate that once we open 2B [when over-40s will be eligible for vaccination from the beginning of July] we will definitely be under pressure and we want to be ready for that".

"People are asking about Sputnik and Sinovac," she said. "Those are some of the things that we are looking at and at the time when we have answers we will provide and announce on those."


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