If you are between 18 and 34 years old, you can register to receive your COVID-19 vaccine from the 1 September 2021. Is the vaccine safe? How did we develop the vaccine? We had a few questions and invited a great panel to answer them.
Meet the Panelists.
Cheleka Mpande is an immunologist by training with a passion for public engagement and science communication. Cheleka recently submitted her doctoral thesis in the field of immunology undertaken via the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative, University of Cape Town. In 2020, Cheleka joined the Eh!woza team as the Impact Assessment Researcher, and coordinator of the scientific communications arm of Eh!woza. Her role primarily focuses on the development and implementation of innovative methods to assess the impact of Eh!woza’s public engagement projects.
Heidi Giokos is a financial reporter at eNCA – since February, she began reporting on the Sisonke study. Since then Giokos has been giving viewers live updates from COVID vaccination sites across the country.– in July 2020, she tested positive for COVID-19 – she spoke out about it on Twitter because she wanted to help break the social stigma around COVID-19 testing.
Aisha Abdool Karim is a senior health reporter at the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. She joined Bhekisisa in January last year and has been covering COVID-19 since then. In that time, her reporting has tracked various aspects of the virus and South Africa’s changing epidemic. This includes fact-checking harmful misinformation around medications, unpacking the science of various vaccine trials and developments around new variants of the virus.
One of the main takeaways from the conversation is that the vaccine is effective and it’s a way for you not to get infected but also to reduce the spreading of the virus around you.
We have extrapolated the main points from our conversation below.
Some people are concerned about how quickly the vaccines that we use were developed. How did we get to current COVID vaccines so quickly? What is the difference between the different vaccines available in South Africa?
The methodology used to make the different COVID-19 vaccines already existed – Moderna used the same technology to make an influenza vaccine that was tested; Oxford had made a similar vaccine for TB but not as advanced. When the pandemic started, many researchers repurposed their studies and these technologies, as well as their time. Another reason is that there is a lot of funding for vaccines. The main bottleneck for vaccines is funding to develop and run preclinical studies and trials. In this case, funds were given by governments and philanthropists to spearhead the process. There were also many volunteers to be part of the trials. Moreover, the window when you get infected and when you get sick is quite short for COVID compared to TB, and it reduces the amount of time you need to follow up on people during the trials.
In terms of the difference between the vaccines, it is mostly in the formulation, the way they are created and provided to people. All COVID-19 vaccines have the purpose is to provide immunity to a specific part of the virus protein.
What are the most prominent variants in South Africa and what should we know about them?
The reason why variants matter is because until the end of the last year it was believed that the virus was stable and didn’t change very much in structure. The variants showed that small parts of the virus are changing slightly and this happens because viruses want to survive by infecting as many people as possible. So the virus is learning how to spread more efficiently from person to person and evade your immune response (if you had already contracted COVID, your body might not be able to recognise it and fight it off successfully). At the moment, the variants are not causing more severe diseases.
The primary variant is the Beta Variant (identified in December 2020 and drove the second wave). It was a big concern for the immune escape component. It posed a question mark for SA’s vaccine rollout as we had to look at how well the vaccine performed against that specific variant (it made up 90% of all new infections). The focus has now changed slightly as the Delta variant was identified around May/June 2021 and it drove the third wave, a massive spike in case of numbers, especially in Gauteng. What makes the Delta variant difficult is that is spreads incredibly quickly from person to person. We have seen a large increase in infections in a short time frame. Even though the majority of new infections don’t develop into severe diseases, the percentage of people needing hospitalization is growing and this is why we had to go into strict lockdown (level 4 to curb gathering). The lockdown did help as we didn’t see the same increase in the other provinces. Delta is dominating infections in SA and the main variant of concern.
Watch the Live below.