Rollout of vaccine weighed up

Covid-19 vaccine

With many misconceptions and conspiracy theories around the Covid-19 vaccines, faith-based leaders have shown their support for the provincial government’s vaccine implementation plans.

South Africa has acquired one million doses of Covishield – the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which arrived from India at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg on Monday, February 3.

The government has also announced that it has secured 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine; nine million doses from Johnson&Johnson; and 12 million from the Covax facility.

A vaccine is the most powerful global weapon we have to turn the tide against the Covid-19 pandemic; it is the “golden chalice of reaching herd immunity”, says head of the provincial Department of Health, Dr Keith Cloete.

Herd immunity is when 70% to 80% of the population is immune to the virus, whether through vaccination or previous infections, thereby reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity.

Dr Cloete was speaking at a digicon last month held by Premier Alan Winde. Asked about the efficacy of the vaccine against future mutations, such as the South African variant called B.1.351, he said it was normal for viruses to mutate. We would have to continue wearing masks and practising physical distancing until we reached herd immunity, he added.

Half a million more doses are due to be delivered by mid-February, said Dr Cloete and all vaccines require two doses four weeks apart to offer the full benefit.

Last week the Western Cape Government’s Inter-Ministerial Committee met with the faith-based organisations network to provide an update on the Covid-19 situation in the province.

MEC of Agriculture, Dr Ivan Meyer, who chaired the meeting, said faith-based leaders are crucial stakeholders in the provincial response to Covid-19: “Our consistent engagements with our religious leaders have indeed led to valuable inputs in providing innovative solutions on ground level.”

He said the focus is to roll out the vaccine and partner with faith-based leaders to spread the message of the importance of developing herd immunity to prevent the spread of the virus.

Pastor Vuyo Dlamini from the Tabernacle Assembly for God in Wynberg said that there has been a divide in the religious sector on vaccine administration.

“Some religious leaders have come out firmly against it and said it’s a way for the government and other entities to control the people. Everyone has a right to their opinion but mine is that God has made this vaccine available – through doctors and scientists who are trying to help the world and the struggles we are facing with millions of people dying around the world.”

Mr Dlamini said innoculations had been used years before against many diseases and viruses. “People are being swept away by conspiracy theories but we need to be sensible and use logic along with the teachings of the bible. We can overcome this terrible virus with the help of God and those people who God gave the wherewithal to come up with a vaccine.”

Hindu priest Guru Krishna, former chairperson of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum and the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, said vaccines are not new to the world. “We are not scientists and we are not doctors but we have faith in God. We need this to protect the people. The death rate with this virus is very frightening.”

He said hopefully the implementation of the vaccine will bring some relief to people’s suffering: “I support the vaccine drive and I encourage people of all faith communities to get vaccinated.”

Medical scientist Dr Gerald Maarman, an external peer reviewer for the world’s top medical and scientific journals, said the discussion around Covid-19 and the vaccines has been particularly important to him because of his medical profession and also a minister of the Gospel.

Dr Maarman said there has been a lot of confusion around the virus and vaccine.

Over the past few weeks he had meetings with nearly 500 pastors about the topic and many raised their concerns.

The vaccine coming to SA contains very small portions of genetic material of the virus and that small portion is essentially giving instructions to the human body on how to make these little spike proteins.

“Explaining the virus and how the vaccine works in layman’s terms is extremely important so that everyone can understand. The vaccine does not contain a live virus so you cannot get Covid from the vaccine and it does not contain a weakened form of the virus, just the instruction to allow the body to recognise the virus and kill it.”

Dr Maarman said conspiracy theories about a chip being in the vaccine to alter human DNA is nonsensical.

“At this point in time there is no microchip technology that is so small that it could fit through the size of a needle. The vaccine doesn’t have the ability to alter DNA of a human being.

“Not even the smartest and most intellectual person out there can alter the human DNA – it’s not possible.”

Asked about the theory that the vaccine is the mark of the beast as described in Revelations in the Bible, he said anyone who calls themselves a leader and has sufficient theological knowledge of some sort would know that when you study the apocalyptic coming the bible describes what is the mark of the beast.

“If one thinks about it – logically it doesn’t not make sense – even applying it in this day in age.

“I encourage people to take the vaccine, I will take the vaccine because it will save lives. We have to understand that vaccines are just a part of life. Most of us have had vaccinations and this is merely another one that will do amazing things,”said Dr Maarman.

The vaccine works by administering the first dose to help the immune system create a response against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease. The second dose further boosts the immune response to ensure long-term protection.

Mark van der Heever, spokesman for the provincial Department of Health, said the biggest misconception was that work on the vaccine started when the pandemic began.

“Vaccines are put through a number of tests and trials to confirm that they are safe. The Covid-19 vaccine was developed quicker than any other vaccine in medical history because of years of previous research on related viruses, faster ways to manufacture vaccines, enormous funding that allowed firms to run multiple trials in parallel, and regulators moving more quickly than normal,” he said.

The province’s five million people will get the vaccine in three phases. The first phase, Dr Cloete said, would include health-care workers, with an estimated target of 105 000; the second would include essential workers, people older than 60, and those older than 18 with comorbidities, with a target of two million; and the third would include people older than 18 with a target of three million people.

Covisheld is the cheapest of the three available vaccines at about R60. BioNTech/Pfizer is about R302 and Moderna is between R226 to R377.

Infectious-diseases specialist and vaccine scientist Professor Linda-Gail Bekker is the deputy director of UCT’s Desmond Tutu HIV Centre. She said more vaccines would be added as many were under development.

“This is good because no single manufacturer can single handedly meet the world’s demands. And more available, effective vaccines will also help to regulate prices.”

Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at Wits and director of the South Africa Medical Research Council (SAMRC), said many of the vaccines to be produced over the next six months, were already earmarked for countries that had made prior commit-

ments.

As a result, South Africa would probably experience another one to two resurgences of Covid-19 before a substantial proportion of the population would have been immunised.

Dr Cloete said common side effects would include discomfort at the injection site (usually the upper arm), and flu-like symptoms, clearing between four to five days later.

“This is not Covid-19 but the body’s immune system reacting to the vaccine when antibodies are forming,” he said. The best protection would come three weeks after the injection and after taking the second dose, four weeks after the first shot.

Professor Bekker said that while a vaccine could not guarantee 100% immunity, those who got it had an improved chance of not dying from Covid-19 or getting very sick.

The City’s mayoral committee member for community services and health, Zahid Badroodien, said they were preparing the logistics for phase 1 of the vaccine roll-out.

MEC for Health Nomafrench Mbombo said at the digicon that no one would be forced to take the vaccine.