The safety of healthworkers is a top priority for trade unions representing them, as the country tries to grapple with the news of the AstraZeneca vaccine not offering adequate protection against the Covid-19 variant that has been dominant since December.
Healthcare workers are in the priority group meant to receive the vaccine’s first shot this week.
Khaya Xaba, spokesperson for the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), said that the union welcomed the government’s decision to suspend the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout.
“Nehawu will continue to encourage its members and workers to take the vaccines. We will continue with our campaign to educate both workers and the public to inform them about the dangers of Covid-19 and the importance of the vaccination programme.”
This sentiment was shared by Sibongiseni Delihlazo, spokesperson for the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa), who also said that its members would be acting on the guidance offered by the country’s top scientists.
“Denosa’s main concern is the safety of both healthcare workers and community members and, as such, acknowledges the superior scientific guidance that the government is getting and acting on.”
Meanwhile, Angelique Coetzee, national chairperson of the South African Medical Association (Sama), said that the decision to vaccinate was in their members’ hands.
“Sama members will have to decide for themselves. We can only provide them with the latest updated data. Some doctors are very keen to vaccinate and then others, still a bit unsure.”
During the announcement of the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout postponement, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said the AstraZeneca vaccine would, in the interim, be replaced with the single-shot Janssen vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and the two-shot BNT162b2 from BionTech-Pfizer.
Both vaccines were more efficacious against the new variant, with J&J providing up to 67% protection against mild to moderate illness 14 days after immunisation. Against severe illness, its efficacy is 85% after 28 days and 77% from day 14. It has also been found to have a 57% effectiveness against the current variant.
Xaba said that the union had noted the update on the J&J vaccine and called on the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) to approve it.
“We also note the update on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has had 44 352 participants partaking in its trial with positive results. We call on our government to move with speed in procuring it because some of the participants were South Africans. Moreover, we call on the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority to move with speed in authorising its use after satisfying itself with its safety for rollout.”
Delihlazo said that Denosa hoped for an acceleration in the procurement of the J&J vaccine. On the other hand, Coetzee said that the union would accept the J&J vaccine pending more clinical data.
“While we are awaiting more clinical data, we will accept that the J&J vaccine currently has better clinical data against severe disease and hospital admissions than AZ [AstraZeneca]. It, however, does not make AZ an inferior product.”
Coetzee believed that the premature decision to procure the AstraZeneca vaccine, in the absence of trial data on its effectiveness on the new variant, was due to “lots of pressure on the president as well as the [health] minister by the public” and that the “AZ was what was available”.
Dalihlazo said that they hoped that “in future, the efficacy of the vaccine will be confirmed before purchasing”.
According to Xaba, the government should “widen its net in searching for more vaccine options”. He further called on the government to consider the Russian-made Sputnik V, which published “impressive” phase 3 findings in the Lancet medical journal last week.
About 20 000 participants took part in the trial. Its efficacy was reported at 91.6%, based on the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases from 21 days after the first dose, and, as it lessens the severity of disease after one dose, this encouraged current dose-sparing strategies.
Another suggested vaccine by Nehawu is the Cuban Sovereign 1 vaccine. Xaba said that “Cuba was known for its cutting-edge medical technology and expertise, especially in preventative medical approaches”. He added: “Our government must not confine its search for vaccines to Western and European manufacturers only, but [should] widen its search [to] other countries for possible vaccines.”