NATIONAL NEWS - The first of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines that will be used to roll out phase 1 of the vaccination programme among South Africa's healthcare workers will arrive this week, according to the National Health Department.
Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said they are "devastated" at the news that the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout has been suspended.
"We are fortunate to have world-class scientists in South Africa, and it is important that we listen carefully to their advice on what should now be done. We will await their guidance."
During an online media conference yesterday, Wednesday 10 February, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said that a decision is yet to be made on what to do with the 1,5 million AstraZeneca doses that arrived in South Africa last week.
Should they not be used locally, several countries have indicated that they would be interested to buy the vaccines. Government is also in consultation with Covax (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative) about the possible swopping of the AstraZeneca supply for other vaccines.
This comes after the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has shown only a 22% efficacy against the 501Y.V2 coronavirus strain that is dominant in South Africa. The Johnson & Johnson has shown 85% efficacy in preventing severe disease and death.
Referring to the April expiry date of the AstraZeneca vaccines, Mkhize said it was not discovered by accident but during routine control checks.
"If the department would have proceeded with the rollout, these vaccines would have been used up before the expiry date, so it would not have affected us at all."
He said the rollout of the J&J vaccine programme will take the form of an implementation study in a partnership between the Medical Research Council and the National Department of Health vaccination sites across the country.
"This will help us to provide valuable information about the pandemic in the post-vaccination community and thus ensure identification in breakthrough infections if they occur among health care workers."
This will give an indication of what will happen in the rest of the population.
The department has also secured doses from Pfizer for the phase 1 rollout. Local scientists are continuing to evaluate other candidates and engagement with the manufacturers of the Sputnik vaccine is at an advanced stage.
Engagements with Sinopharm in China are ongoing and China has made offers of some vaccines, which are being considered. "In this regard a non-disclosure agreement has been signed and the ratification processes at Sahpra are in progress," said Mkhize.
Engagements with Moderna are ongoing and a further announcement will be made soon.
He said local scientists are deliberating on the use of AstraZeneca in South Africa and depending on their advice, the vaccine would be swopped before the expiry date.
There are other countries in Africa where the South African variant does not occur and where the AstraZeneca vaccine could be used.
J&J has communicated its commitment that South Africa will be "properly serviced" with vaccines. Mkhize said he is pleased that it is going "very well" at Aspen Pharmacare's factory in Port Elizabeth, which has been contracted to manufacture 230 million doses of the J&J vaccine. The first batch should be available by April.
Referring to the Aspen facility and commitment from J&J, he said, "We have a base from which to start developing new capacity for vaccine production in South Africa and Aspen is already one of the assets that we have. There are a whole lot of others. It is time now for Africa to build its capacity to manufacture vaccines."
Earlier this week, Deputy Director-General of Health Dr Anban Pillay explained that a study conducted on thousands of South African participants had shown the J&J vaccine to be effective in preventing death and hospitalisation.
Other advantages are that it is a single dose vaccine and can be stored in a fridge.
Consulting on AstraZeneca
Pillay said, "We need to understand if this vaccine (AstraZeneca) can be used in South Africa and in which group it will be best suited to use. In Europe the vaccine is used in the lower age groups and not in the over-60s.
"We are consulting with local and global experts to get a better sense of what the results are actually telling us and where we can best implement these vaccines."
Studies around a booster vaccine specifically for the 501Y.V2 variant are ongoing in some countries where the AstraZeneca vaccine is used as a booster together with the Phizer or Gamaleya vaccines.
Pillay said results of how these vaccines are doing together would hopefully be available soon.
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