The Health Department has given South Africa the thumbs up as the country began its first round of the vaccination rollout programme on Wednesday.
Yesterday, the country watched as healthcare workers lined-up to receive the shot of the 80 0000 Johnson & Johnson vaccines that landed on Tuesday, alongside President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize.
“Day one of the first phase of COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout to health workers was a huge success today,” the Health Department said on Wednesday.
The department said South Africa secured the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine for use in the Sisonke ‘Together’ study, which will be distributed to up to 500 000 healthcare workers in 18 public sector hospitals across all nine provinces.
Meanwhile, the organised labour leadership is expected to receive their shots as a demonstration of confidence in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine at Steve Biko Academic Hospital today.
“These are leaders who are health workers themselves,” the department explained.
The State reiterated that protecting frontline workers remains an urgent priority, who are three to four times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population.
Since the outbreak, the department has reported 40 000 South African health workers who have contracted COVID-19, while 6 473 have been hospitalised, with 663 deaths.
South Africa’s rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was suspended earlier this month after studies released showed that it is less effective against the mutated SARS-CoV-2 501Y.V2 variant, which is common in South Africa.
The department believes that Oxford-AstraZeneca may still play a role in the national programme. However, more research is needed to determine how and when it will be used.
“Vaccination using a safe and efficacious vaccine must start without delay to protect healthcare workers during a likely third wave this winter. The switch to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine allows the country to restart phase one vaccine rollout to keep our health workers safe.”
The department said the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson jab protects against severe COVID-19 in South Africa.
“The safety and efficacy of the vaccine were assessed in the international phase three study, ENSEMBLE, which was conducted across Latin America, the United States and South Africa with more than 43 000 participants.”
South Africa had about 7 000 participants in the trial between October 2020 and February 2021, including those who were exposed to the 501Y.V2.
The department explained that the long-term follow-up of study participants is still ongoing, as is required for the process of regulatory approval by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) for commercial or emergency use.
“However, since the safety and efficacy of the vaccine have already been proven, the current rollout is being conducted under The Sisonke Open-Label Program, to assess real-world effectiveness among healthcare workers, who have already been prioritised for vaccination by the South African Government’s COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy.”
The department has once again assured the healthcare workers that the vaccine has been shown to be safe, with no safety concerns reported from past trials or rollouts.
“The ENSEMBLE trial showed excellent protection of a single-dose vaccine against severe COVID-19, including in South Africa, and as such a delay in rolling out the vaccine would be unethical.”
The Sisonke rollout includes collaboration between a team from ENSEMBLE trial, Johnson & Johnson, the National Department of Health and the South African Medical Research Council.
The partners will closely monitor, track and assess the occurrence of hospitalisations and deaths, incidence of severe SARS CoV-2 infections, diversity of breakthrough infections and evaluate vaccine uptake among healthcare workers in South Africa.
“The protection of our healthcare workers through the rollout of the safe and efficacious vaccine is an urgent priority for South Africa.”