Leading vaccinologist Professor Willem Hanekom has added his voice to those defending the government’s acquisition and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, which has been criticised as “dismally slow”, says a Mail & Guardian report.
Hanekom, the director of the Africa Health Research Institute, was responding to last week’s upbraiding of the government by Professor Alex van den Heever, a health economist and chair of social security systems administration and management studies at the Wits School of Governance.
Van den Heever, in a webinar hosted by Medtalkz, had said that South Africa’s COVID-19 death toll was triple the official 53,000 estimate. He is among about six medical scientists critical of the government’s decision to sell its 1.5m AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine consignment to other African nations.
The M&G reports that Hanekom said van den Heever and similar-minded researchers were guilty of using a “retrospectroscope” when a well-meaning government heeded expert scientific advice to make difficult calls in the face of fast-evolving threat.
“Clearly, it’s been devastating economically, and we didn’t do a great job with vaccine procurement, but if you look at the second surge, our interventions worked on a far more transmissible strain which seems to cause more severe disease,” said Hanekom.
“The government did the responsible thing by listening to scientists before deciding on the AstraZeneca batch – the question is what do we do now?”
The report says Hanekom, like Professor Helen Rees, CEO of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, and Professor Glenda Gray, CEO of the South African Medical Research Council and Johnson & Johnson rollout leader, stressed the importance of public confidence in a vaccine.
“You have to bring society along with you and there is simply not enough data on the AstraZeneca vaccine. We just don’t know. Shabir (Madhi) may ultimately be right, but you can’t criticise the decision at the time,” he added.
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