CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South Africa launched its COVID-19 vaccination drive on Wednesday, battling to tame a more infectious variant of the coronavirus with a roll-out of the Johnson & Johnson shot for the first time outside a major clinical trial.
“I actually feel blessed, you know, after all our hard work and effort in the first and second wave that we finally have another layer of protection, another tool…in the fight against COVID-19,” said emergency physician Sa’ad Lahri, one of the first South Africans to be vaccinated.
“I am still Zoliswa, no side-effects,” said nurse Zoliswa Gidi-Dyosi, who was also inoculated at Cape Town’s Khayelitsha District Hospital along with President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.
South Africa has recorded almost half of the COVID-19 deaths and over a third of confirmed infections in all of Africa, but has lagged wealthier Western nations in launching its immunisation campaign.
The government plans to vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of the population in Africa’s most industrialised economy. But it suffered a setback when a small local trial showed AstraZeneca’s vaccine offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2 virus variant dominant in the country.
Authorities have paused plans to use the AstraZeneca vaccine and are considering selling or swapping doses they have ordered.
Instead the J&J vaccine is being deployed as part of a research study targeting up to 500,000 healthcare workers. The U.S. company has been submitting data to South African medicines regulator SAHPRA to secure registration for a larger-scale roll-out.
Ramaphosa called the start of immunisations “a new era” and said he was confident the country would meet its vaccination targets. “I’d like to say to all the doomsayers: let’s all have hope and faith in our system, our healthworkers, and let’s give them an opportunity to do what they do best.”
South Africa is one of the first African nations, along with Rwanda, Morocco and Egypt, to vaccinate against COVID-19.
Zimbabwe will start inoculations on Thursday, while Senegal is expecting its first vaccine delivery on Wednesday.
Ramaphosa’s government has been under pressure to get the first shots in arms quickly after the revelation that AstraZeneca’s vaccine had greatly reduced efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant first identified late last year.
Officials already faced deep scepticism among some South Africans about COVID-19 vaccines.
Health Minister Mkhize said it was an emotional moment when the plane carrying the first 80,000 J&J doses touched down late on Tuesday, praising doctors and nurses as “frontline warriors”.
He said the government had a long discussion with AstraZeneca’s leadership about possibly conducting another local study to reduce the levels of uncertainty about the British firm’s vaccine.
AstraZeneca declined comment when asked about that discussion. It said previously that it believes its vaccine protects against severe COVID-19 and that it has started adapting it against the 501Y.V2 variant.
The next vaccine to arrive in South Africa will be from Pfizer, which will supply around 500,000 doses initially and about 7 million doses by June, Mkhize said.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf in Cape Town and Alexander Winning in Johannesburg, additional reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Christian Schmollinger and Mark Heinrich)