South Africa has halted its vaccination program after a report found that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against a new Covid-19 variant.
The arrival of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa last week was hailed by President Cyril Ramaphosa as a “major milestone in our fight against the coronavirus pandemic”.
However, plans to roll out to health workers were stopped in their tracks after a study by researchers at the University of Witwatersrand found that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against a new variant of the virus – B.1.351. It is estimated that 90% of new Covid-19 cases in South Africa are linked to the new variant.
While the vaccine “had high efficacy against the original coronavirus” variants it offered little by way of protection against “mild-moderate” infection from the B.1.351 variant, the university announced on its website.
Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, remarked that work on a 2nd generation of vaccines has already begun. The new generation will “allow protection to be redirected to emerging variants as booster jabs, if it turns out that it is necessary to do so,” she said.
Though the roll out of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been stopped, plans the launch of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will go ahead next week.
However, conflicting statements have emerged from the government about the availability of the vaccine to migrants and refugees in South Africa.
Last week, President Ramaphosa stated that the vaccine would be “available to all” adults – regardless of their citizenship or residence status. But health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize had previously said that they would be limited to South African citizens.
Speaking to Vatican News, Father Russell Pollitt of the Jesuit Institute South Africa noted the integral role that migrants have in South Africa.
Official figures suggest that there are 3 million asylum seekers in the country, though the true figure is probably higher, as Pollitt notes.
Politt questioned the rationale of the plans for herd immunity if migrants.
“If we are going to deal effectively with covid, and they want to talk about herd immunity, the more people we can vaccinate the better it is going to be: it’s going to be a waste of the country’s money to vaccinate only select groups in the population if this is not going to stamp out the virus,” he said.
He also expressed fears that the vaccine would turn into a “political football” in light of upcoming local government elections this year.
While calls for “equitable sharing” of the vaccine, as made by Pope Francis and WHO Secretary General Antonio Guterres, are acknowledged in South Africa, they go unheeded.
“In the world of politics and in a system where corruption is endemic, these voices are acknowledged and even quoted… but they certainly won’t act on what they hear,” he said.