The South African Medical Association (Sama) is calling on the government to roll out vaccine booster shots to health-care workers immediately, arguing that the efficacy of the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is unknown, and that the single J&J vaccination only provides good immunity up to, at most, eight months.
Health-care workers were the first cohort of people that were vaccinated in South Africa under the Sisonke Programme, which was a collaboration between the National Department of Health, South African Medical Research Council, Desmond Tutu Health Foundation, CAPRISA, Janssen, and Johnson & Johnson, that allowed the government to make the J&J vaccine immediately available to health-care workers, using a research programme.
According to Sama, research indicates that the immunity and efficacy of single-dose vaccination – such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – is unknown and that a single J&J vaccination only provides good immunity up to, at most, eight months.
On Friday, the US moved towards treating J&J as a two-dose vaccine, after studies shows that its efficacy increased after a booster shot.
In South Africa, more than 4.6 million people have received a single dose of the J&J vaccine.
“It’s critical, in our view, that booster shots be administered to all doctors and health-care workers as a matter of routine, and as early as possible. These are people who are literally on the front-line of a war, and who have made enormous sacrifices to assist others. It’s our duty, and the duty of authorities, to ensure that these brave men and women receive the best possible protection they can, which is possible through authorising booster shots,” says Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairperson of SAMA.
Dr Coetzee says the high effectiveness of reducing hospitalisations, among those who have received second doses and booster shots, will ensure the continued health of health-care workers, and reduce transmissions in health facilities. In addition, she says, booster shots will become more necessary as new variants of Covid-19 arise.
“Resources, both human and operational, are already stretched and the battles against Covid-19 – especially during the first three waves – have exacted a further heavy toll. Doctors are emotionally strained and we are still receiving information about burnout among many of our colleagues. Booster doses will go a long way to send a message to doctors that they are being supported, and that their efforts are being recognised,” notes Dr Coetzee.
In light of the fact that vaccines are in good supply, and that providing booster shots will not dent supply to those who need their first shots, Dr Coetzee says it’s now time to start prioritising the roll-out of boosters to all health-care workers. She says that government should give health-care workers the individual right to choose between the second dose of J&J or Pfizer.
“We still need to focus on getting as many South Africans vaccinated as possible, and we will support those efforts. But vaccine supply is not constrained and some of those which are available must be given to the people who face this pandemic head-on every day, without diverting anything from the public. We believe the scientific evidence strongly favours this approach,” notes Dr Coetzee.
Dr Coetzee says the administration of booster doses to health-care workers must not detract from intensive efforts to ensure all health-care workers, who have not yet received their initial doses, get these done as a matter of urgency.
On Wednesday, the Department of Health opened up vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 17 years old.
This follows a recommendation received from the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19 vaccines last week.
Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla and the MAC have advised that a single dose of the Pfizer jab should be administered for now, as approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).
The MAC recommended the delay of administering the second dose, due to concerns about rare cases of myocarditis – heart muscle inflammation, with a few cases reported across the globe after a second dose.
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