JOHANNESBURG: South Africa has resumed giving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to health care workers after a more than two-week pause in the use of the only COVID-19 inoculation in the country.
South Africa on Wednesday restarted its drive to inoculate 1.2 million health care workers with the J&J vaccine.
South Africa suspended the use of the J&J vaccine on April 13 after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that it might be linked to rare blood clots. The country's drug regulatory body determined that the vaccine is safe and Cabinet approved resuming its use.
Before the halt, South Africa had given more than 290,000 shots of the J&J vaccine to health care workers and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize urged all health care workers to get the shots.
“It is much better to have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine than to avoid taking it for fear of getting a blood clot," said Mkhize in a statement, saying there is a “one in a million chance of getting a blood clot from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In America, about 7 million people have now received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine and are protected from COVID-19.”
The J&J vaccine is the best vaccine against the COVID-19 variant dominant in South Africa, said Mkhize.
The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority recommended returning to the J&J vaccine, saying that it found no causal link between blood clots and the J&J vaccine in those who have already been vaccinated.
With the resumption, the government has increased the number of sites where the jabs will be given to health care workers and it now has adequate doses in the country, said Mkhize. South Africa will strengthen its “screening and monitoring of participants who are at high risk of a blood clotting disorder,” said his statement.
South Africa has by far the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in Africa. With more than 1.5 million cases, including 54,237 deaths, South Africa accounts for more than 30% of Africa's 4.5 million cases and more than 40% of the 120,802 deaths reported by the continent's 54 countries, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As it resumes vaccinating health care workers, South Africa is preparing to launch a mass vaccination drive on May 17, starting with those 60 years and older, said Mkhize. More than 3,300 vaccination sites are being set up across the country.
South Africa is aiming to vaccinate some 40 million of its 60 million people by February next year, he said.
South Africa has ordered 31 million doses of the J&J vaccine, most of which will be produced in South Africa at the Aspen Pharmacare manufacturing facility in Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth. The plant will receive large batches of the components of the vaccine, blend them and put them in individual vials, and package them, a process known as “fill and finish.” The South African plant has the capacity to finish up to 300 million doses of the J&J vaccine annually.
South Africa has also secured 30 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine for its vaccination campaign, of which nearly 1 million are expected to be delivered to South Africa by May 17, said Mkhize. The Pfizer vaccines will be used in the country's major cities, which have adequate freezers and the logistics to administer the two-dose vaccine. The J&J vaccines, which can be stored in ordinary refrigerators and are single-dose vaccines, will be used in South Africa's rural areas, said Mkhize.
South Africa has been the hardest hit by the pandemic in Africa with over 1.5 million infections and more than 53,000 deaths.