South Africa’s Covid-19 inoculation programme is facing imminent delays, derailing a programme that was meant to run smoothly with a target of vaccinating most of the priority groups before the end of this year.
There have been a multitude of reasons, including suspension of the jab rollout, that have resulted in slowing down the vaccinations.
Vaccine rollout hiccups
It began in February when Pretoria received its first batch of the Covid-19 AstraZeneca vaccine amid high hopes that the country would finally find its way out of the pandemic.
Within that week of the delivery of one million doses, it was established, from clinical findings, that the AstraZeneca vaccine has a 22 percent efficacy against the new Covid-19 strain in South Africa.
The vaccine’s rollout plan was then suspended by the Health Ministry and the one million doses were sold to the African Union by the government at a small fraction of the cost at which South Africa procured them.
A further 500,000 AstraZeneca shots that had been ordered from the Serum Institute of India, which were due to be delivered in February, were then stopped.
The vaccine rollout gaffe sparked widespread outrage that the government had wasted taxpayers’ money in this exercise.
The country then planned to administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but the rollout was briefly suspended last week following reports of rare cases of blood clots in the brain discovered in some women in the US.
South Africa Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) has since okayed the resumption of administering Johnson & Johnson jabs under certain conditions.
The suspensions led to South Africa being way behind schedule in its vaccination programme.
The country had planned to begin inoculating the rest of its population by June, but this may not happen as the country is yet to complete the first phase of vaccinations targeting frontline workers.
Due to the delays, the second phase, targeting essential workers, persons with comorbidities as well as those aged 60 and above, is set to begin mid-May and run until the end of October.
The government now hopes to inoculate 46.2 million of its 59 million population by March 2022.
Despite lagging behind in the rollout programme, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize says the country is still on the right track.
“After October of course everybody else who has not been vaccinated will have to come in, starting with those who will be in congregate settings and risk, and so on,” Dr Mkhize said.
“It is for this reason that I have embarked on a nationwide tour to assess the readiness of provinces to roll out the vaccines at the anticipated rate that will be required to achieve population immunity by the first quarter in 2022.”
South Africa had initially planned that two million of the twelve million doses from the World Health Organization-led Covax scheme will also be rolled out in March.
But those doses are yet to arrive and 1.2 million of those are now expected to be delivered “in this quarter,” according to Dr Mkhize.
Mass vaccination programme
Calls that the government should speed up its mass inoculation programme are growing louder by the day.
Renowned vaccinologist, Professor Shabir Madhi, last week slammed the government for the slow pace at which it is rolling out the programme.
The Wits University professor termed the rollout “an absolute disaster”, saying the slow pace continues to put a strain on the healthcare system.
“I think it was always naive of us to think we were going to contain the spread of the virus given our socio-economic conditions,” he said.
“That has been an absolute disaster. We are one of the few countries that are yet to start a Covid vaccination programme. What’s currently happening with health workers is not part of the general Covid-19 vaccine programmes, it’s an implementation study.
“We are not trying to get rid of this virus. What we are trying to do is reduce pressure on our healthcare system and reduce the number of people dying. If we can get 15 million people vaccinated in the next four months, SA could get back to a relatively normal life despite the ongoing circulation of the virus.”
Meanwhile, the country launched the official South African Covid-19 Vaccination Programme Registration Portal as it gears to enter phase two of the vaccine rollout.
The electronic vaccination data system (EVDS) went live on April 16 and 343,420 senior citizens were already registered within five days of the launch.
Given that the majority of those aged 60 years and above have no access to internet facilities, the response in registration might be an indicator that many people would like to get vaccinated.
However, Minister Mkhize said that registering “does not guarantee that you will be vaccinated immediately.”
“The quality of services will be the same for all of us and the system will assign a vaccination site closest to our homes or where we work, not based on whether a particular site is a public or private facility,” he said.
“We will use the Information you provide when you register to communicate with you about the vaccination programme when necessary.”
In addition, there are also steps to set up a No-Fault Compensation Fund that will deal with medical complaints related to Covid-19 vaccines.
To avoid a huge bill from such complaints, Sahpra has set conditions for administering the Johnson & Johnson jabs.
“These conditions include, but are not limited to, strengthened screening and monitoring of participants who are at high risk of a blood clotting disorder,” Sahpra said.
“Measures are to be implemented to ensure the safe management of any participants who develop vaccine-induced thrombosis and thrombocytopenia (VITT).”