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Covid-19 Vaccines in South Africa

I would like to make the following information available to people regarding the vaccination for Covid-19 in SA.

The government is very well prepared for the vaccine rollout. The vaccines that have been approved so far have gone through the same rigorous research as other vaccines and medications but because all countries and drug companies have worked together, made more finances available. People willingly came forward to be part of the trials. There was a lot of Covid-19 around to be able to test the vaccine. The disease is easily spread. This allowed the research to progress more quickly than usual. In fact, they have been tested on far more people than is usually the case. The AstraZeneca vaccine was tested on 178 000 people, the Pfizer vaccine was tested on 250 000 people. As is usual with all medications released on the market the monitoring and surveillance on side effects and adverse effects continue now that it will be used for the public. The government has extensive and excellent vaccine programmes for children and therefore has extensive experience with rolling out vaccine programmes. Nevertheless, they are preparing all doctors and nurses who will participate through an 8-hour education programme using video lectures and multiple-choice questions to ensure the content has been well assimilated and supporting articles and documents.

The government has set up an electronic register to keep track of who has received the vaccine and to monitor side-effects. The system will be used to remind people when they must come for their second dose and where to go for their vaccination. The vaccines, according to the trials, are very safe and most people only have minor side effects of pain at the injection site or fever and muscle pains which last up to 2 days and show that the vaccine is causing the desired immune response in the body.

The AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine will be about 60 to 70% effective in preventing Covid-19. It has now been shown to be about 20% effective against mild to moderate disease caused by the new variant, 501Y.V2. However, even if these people do still get Covid-19, they do not get it severely. The Pfizer vaccine is 95%effective. Some people may be allergic to the carrier substance for these vaccines, but allergic reactions are rare. Some people may faint when they get the vaccine because of fear and anxiety related to needles and injections and this happens with other injection and blood taking as well. Every place that gives vaccines will be required to have resuscitation equipment on standby just in case. People will be observed for 15 min after the vaccine to ensure that they do not get a reaction. It is important to note that not all deaths or adverse events that happen after a person gets a vaccine can be attributed to getting the vaccine. Most in fact are incidental. A recent report in Germany of people that died within 4 hours to 28 days after getting the vaccine was thoroughly investigated and none of the deaths could be attributed directly to the effect of the vaccine.

The Covishield vaccine is a vaccine based on an adenovirus that has been inactivated so it can no longer cause disease (the common cold) and the spike protein of the Covid-19 is carried on this adenovirus. It acts as an antigen which induces the immune response. It has no power to do anything to your DNA.

The mRNA Pfizer vaccine causes the body’s cells to make the spike protein. The mRNA only lives in the body for a short time. It does not enter the nucleus where the DNA is. Its effect is therefore only long enough to make the antigen which induces the immune response, but it then disappears from the body.

The body’s immune memory cells which are made for all infections and antigens that enter the body survive long term to protect the body. At this stage, we do not yet know how long the memory cells will survive, but it may be only for 5 to 8 months.

The vaccine in Israel has had the effect of greatly reducing the numbers of people getting Covid-19 and the deaths due to Covid-19, after about 57% of the population was immunised and within a month of immunisation. We are hoping for a similar effect which will bring life gradually back to normal and help our economy to recover. In the meantime, we must continue using masks, handwashing, and social distancing. Other vaccine trials are awaiting completion, e.g., the Russian vaccine which is also an Adenovirus vaccine seems to be 94% effective.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine, in which South Africa was involved with the vaccine trials, will only need a single dose, unlike all the other vaccines and will be about 70% effective. It has been tested on the new variant in South Africa and is still effective. The vaccine is also based on the adenovirus. It contains double-stranded Covid-19 DNA to make the spike protein, but it cannot replicate in the body anymore.  This is the vaccine that the health professionals in South Africa will receive.

It is important that we all participate in the vaccination programme to protect children and pregnant people and people with compromised immunity such as those undergoing cancer treatments as these people will not be able to receive the vaccine at this stage.


By Dr Karin Volker