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South Africans still dying but COVID vaccine drive slows to a trickle

Daily COVID vaccinations have more or less levelled off since July, with most vaccine sites having closed and the number of jabs plummeting to about 5 000 a day, compared with, at the peak, up to 240 000 doses daily, writes Daniel Steyn for GroundUp, adding that government is a long way from its target of 67% adult vaccination it wanted to achieve by the end of 2021.

Half of the adult population in South Africa is currently vaccinated, and among adults 60 or older, nearly 73% have been fully vaccinated. Although deaths from the virus are much lower than in 2020 and 2021, there are still a lot of them.

GroundUp visited the District Six Community Day Centre, a government clinic, in Cape Town. We asked for a COVID vaccine and were directed to a small room, where one of us waited more than an hour and a half for a vaccine (though two of us were vaccinated considerably quicker – about 30 minutes). This wasn’t because there was a long queue.

The nurse administering the vaccines was busy treating patients elsewhere in the clinic. The person logging the vaccines on the computer system told GroundUp that on average, 12 people a day visit the clinic for vaccines.

GroundUp visited a Clicks store in Cape Town where, three months ago, vaccines were still being administered, but they no longer do COVID vaccines.

The government’s dedicated coronavirus website has a list of “active vaccination sites”, many of which are no longer active, and the “Find My Jab” page has completely different information.

Meanwhile, people are still getting ill from the virus. About 2 000 new cases are reported each week, but according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) only 16% of cases are being detected. Testing sites are also few and far between.

Professor Glenda Gray, CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), says the vaccine has done a good job of reducing deaths, serious illness and hospitalisations. Official daily deaths and hospitalisation rates are low in relation to previous waves. In the past four weeks, 125 deaths were reported from COVID.

The real number of deaths is probably much more than this. A weekly report published by the Medical Research Council and the University of Cape Town calculates the number of excess deaths – the deaths above the historical average before COVID: there have been close to 50 000 excess deaths so far this year. While in earlier waves the researchers were able to estimate that 85% to 95% of these excess deaths were due to COVID, its changing nature has made it harder to estimate how many of this year’s excess deaths are due to the virus.

More than 85% of infections are from the Omicron BA.5 variant, which is widespread and infectious but usually causes very mild illness.

To prevent serious illness and death, getting the vaccine and booster shots are still recommended. Gray says it is especially important for immuno-compromised people, like those with HIV, to get vaccinated.

“Sadly, the virus has done a far better job of generating immunity than our government, which continues to be maddeningly slow at getting the vaccine out,” says Professor Francois Venter, infectious diseases clinician and head of Ezintsha at Wits University.

Although being infected by and recovering from the virus does provide a level of immunity, getting a vaccine still greatly improves protection against the virus.

“I think we were all hoping once we had immunity from either infection or a vaccine or two, it would be enough. But from what we are seeing internationally, new waves of COVID, while not killing people in the numbers we saw in 2020 and 2021, are still making people very sick,” Venter says.

Dr Nicholas Crisp, deputy director-eneral of the National Department of Health, is the co-ordinator of the national vaccination drive. He agrees the current status of the vaccination drive is “very disappointing”.

He says the programme is being integrated into primary health care, targeting areas geographically where communities or segments of a community are not vaccinated. He adds that the government is continuing with daily testing, gene sequencing and wastewater sampling, and preparing for the future of COVID as well as other potential pandemics.

Future variants could be more dangerous. “As long as there is transmission, there is going to be mutation,” Gray told GroundUp. How the virus mutates in the future is yet to be seen.

In the US, new bivalent vaccines designed to target the Omicron variant are already available. But, Gray says, there is not yet sufficient evidence that these work better than the current vaccines.

According to Crisp, the government is not considering any new vaccines. “We are not buying vaccines this year and may not buy vaccines next year,” he says.

South Africa still has 8m doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 10m doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. He says paediatric Pfizer vaccines will be purchased with some of the credit that South Africa has with the Covax facility. These will be given to children who are immuno-compromised.



GroundUp article – Covid: Vaccine drive is running out of steam and people are dying (Creative Commons Licence)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Vaccines still vital as COVID-19 changes – Abdool Karim


DoH is stuck with high hopes and scores of millions of COVID-19 doses


Millions of unused, expired COVID vaccines to be destroyed, says Phaahla


Crisp: Vaccine apathy means SA may have to destroy COVID-19 doses




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