South Africa’s vaccination drive began on Wednesday, 17 February 2021, at the Khayelitsha Hospital, with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize and various frontline healthcare workers among the first to receive the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine. Professor Linda-Gail Bekker and Professor Graeme Meintjes of the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) in the Faculty of Health Sciences were present for the auspicious occasion.
Professor Meintjes, the second chair in the Department of Medicine at UCT and the lead on the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa’s (CIDRI-Africa) Clinical Research Platform, highlighted the significance not only of the start of the vaccination drive, but also of Khayelitsha Hospital being chosen as the location for the launch.
“The staff at Khayelitsha Hospital do an incredible job working under challenging circumstances. Their work often doesn’t receive the recognition that it should, so it was especially fitting that the hospital was chosen for this historic event,” he said.
“It was incredibly symbolically powerful. To see frontline healthcare workers, the president and the minister of health demonstrating their confidence and trust in the vaccine will go a long way to reassure people who are ambivalent about vaccination to get themselves vaccinated when they are eligible.”
“Every kind of healthcare worker was represented and all could identify with the sense of inclusion.”
Professor Bekker, the deputy director of UCT’s Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, noted that the atmosphere in the hospital was “electric”. She added that there was a feeling “of hope fulfilled and a wonderful promise of great potential all at the same time”.
“I had a real sense of what scientific endeavour is all about, as we had such tangible evidence of its potential for public health benefit so soon after completing the clinical trial and knowing we had an efficacious intervention to deploy,” she remarked. “Every kind of healthcare worker was represented and all could identify with the sense of inclusion.”
Stopping the spread
Both Meintjes and Bekker stressed the importance of inoculating the majority of South Africans in order to achieve herd immunity.
“It’s a simple equation: the more people we can get vaccinated across the country, the fewer people we will have admitted to our hospitals with severe COVID-19; and fewer deaths from COVID-19 will occur going forward,” said Meintjes.
“Every person who we can get vaccinations to should take up the opportunity [to be inoculated] with speed and enthusiasm.”
“The findings of the ENSEMBLE Studies [led in South Africa by Bekker and Professor Glenda Gray] tell us this: This vaccine is very effective at preventing severe COVID-19 infections caused by the new variant. The challenge now is to ensure we get as many people vaccinated as possible over the coming months,” he said.
The South African government recently pivoted to purchasing 80 000 doses of the J&J vaccine after trials indicated that it could be more effective in protecting against the local 501Y.V2 COVID-19 variant than the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“The message is this: Every person who we can get vaccinations to should take up the opportunity [to be inoculated] with speed and enthusiasm. It is in the best interest of each individual, as well as in the interest of our communities and the public in general,” concluded Bekker.
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