The Mercury

Experts give the thumbs-up to vaccines


DESPITE concerns over two variants of the coronaviru­s having been detected in South Africa, health experts say the Covid-19 vaccines that will be administer­ed in the country will provide protection.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize confirmed that the country is on schedule to begin phase two of the vaccinatio­n programme on May 17.

Two vaccines, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J), will be used as part of the country’s vaccinatio­n programme.

There have been concerns raised about two coronaviru­s variants, the B.1.617.2, first identified in India, and the B.1.1.7, first identified in the UK. Both variants have been detected in coronaviru­s tests conducted in the country.

Mkhize said the variants were a matter of concern, but their appearance in the country was not unexpected. He reiterated that the public should remain calm, as scientists continued to study the impact of the variants. He said what was unknown at the moment was what type of impact the variants would have.

“The risk that we have is that any of these variants can behave in a manner that we cannot predict, and we can only know once we have seen what they have done. To prevent the spread of the infection, the people in South Africa need to know that the containmen­t measures are the same,” Mkhize said yesterday.

The chair of the ministeria­l health advisory committee, Professor Barry Schoub, said the vaccines to be administer­ed in the country would work against the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India.

“I think we can extrapolat­e that our vaccines, both the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and Pfizer, will, in all probabilit­y, work pretty well against the B.1.617.2 variant,” he said.

What distinguis­hed the Pfizer and J&J vaccines from the AstraZenec­a vaccine, which the government decided against using, was that both had modificati­ons that provided for better immune response, Schoub said yesterday.

Wits Professor Shabir Madhi said he believed that the Covid-19 vaccines would offer some protection against the B.1.617.2 variant, but he cautioned that he thought it might not be 100%, as the variant has the same mutations first spotted in the B.1.351, first identified in South Africa.

“I do believe that Covid-19 vaccines would work against the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India, but it won’t work well in protecting against mild and moderate infection.

“It will probably still protect against severe disease. This particular variant from India shares a common mutation that is very similar to the one found in the South African variant. That makes these viruses relatively resistant to the immune responses induced by the current generation of vaccines,” Madhi said.

Madhi said all vaccines worked and that the country should be focused on vaccinatin­g the 12 million people who were at risk because of comorbidit­ies. He said the aim should not only be herd immunity, but preventing severe illness, hospitalis­ation and death.

“All of these Covid-19 vaccines will provide high levels of protection, it is about protecting people from hospitalis­ation and death,” he said.

Mkhize said the country aimed to vaccinate about 16 million people between May and October, and another 22 million by 2022. He said not all provinces would reach the vaccinatio­n time lines and that some would have to continue vaccinatio­ns next year.

The country is expected to receive thousands of doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the coming weeks – this is alongside more J&J jabs.

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