Home South African Brace for Covid-19 perfect storm, warns expert

Brace for Covid-19 perfect storm, warns expert

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The Easter holidays coupled with the lag in vaccinations and the upcoming winter season could have devastating effects on the country and is a serious cause for concern, says leading SA vaccinologist

A group of pastors from various churches marched to Parliament on Friday to demand 100% capacity in their churches over the Easter weekend. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

ARROGANCE, poor decision-making and a “non-existent” vaccine strategy are some of the key ingredients for the country’s impending Covid-19 perfect storm in the coming weeks.

These are some of the choice phrases used by leading South African vaccinologist Professor Shabir Madhi to describe government’s “bungling” of its Covid-19 response, including its national vaccination drive.

Madhi said that the Easter holidays coupled with the lag in vaccinations and the upcoming winter season could have devastating effects on the country and was a serious cause for concern.

“Our vaccine strategy is non-existent. South Africa is one of only 44 countries in the world to have not started a proper vaccination drive,” said Madhi.

“Given the current situation, in all likelihood we will see a third wave starting possibly after the Easter break, which means that come May we could be in the midst of the third wave when the next phase of vaccinations are scheduled to begin. Carrying out a vaccination drive during a resurgence is not ideal and sadly those at high risk will be more compromised.”

Madhi was initially a member of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19 but was left out when the MAC was reconfigured.

“I have not been a member of the MAC since September last year. I would be embarrassed to be part of this MAC,” he said.

Madhi also questioned the government’s decision to sell its doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the AU and labelled the move “contradictory”.

“The reasoning for the sale of the AstraZeneca vaccine was that its inefficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant, even though research showed us that it could protect against severe disease; then we go and purchase millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine whose efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant is undetermined – it’s a complete contradiction,” he said.

“We are dealing with an arrogance to the point that the MAC believes they know more than the World Health Organization, and this is going to come back to haunt us,” said Madhi.

Madhi is not alone in his scathing assessment of the government’s handling of the pandemic and its vaccination strategy.

Fatima Hassan, head of the Health Justice Initiative, said she was concerned about the lack of information emanating from the MAC around the vaccine strategy.

“We don’t have the full details of the vaccine strategy except for what is coming from the Johnson and Johnson test study. This is dependent on the MAC putting out their advisory, which is not yet available on their website. So we don’t know where the strategy is and we don’t know what the timelines are, and we are really concerned,” said Hassan.

Dr Ridhwaan Suliman, a senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, also warned of a potential crisis.

According to Suliman, some of the key markers in data that looks at the infection trajectory of Covid-19 are a cause for concern.

“The increase in the key markers, that are up by 2-3%, is definitely a cause for concern, particularly with the Easter holidays coming up and the potential for super-spreader events. If we don’t get on top of it, it could spread further.”

Suliman said that the rate of vaccinations was as a result of the quantities procured by the government, but the targets set were ‘too optimistic’ and would not be met.

“We have to use the tools that we have available and these decisions need to be driven by data not dates.”

Professor Alex van den Heever, chairperson of Social Security Systems at Wits University’s School of Governance, said that human behaviour was a driving factor and contingent action was needed to prevent any potential super-spreader event.

“We are not sure whether we will see the same surge but we cannot take that risk. In December, certain measures taken had an impact and these must be considered, particularly in light of the government’s appallingly managed vaccination strategy,” said Van den Heever.

The chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on health, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, declined to comment on Madhi’s criticism but said there were concerns over an impending third wave.

“There does appear to be a storm approaching and I think that is why the MAC has been proactive in looking at possible measures over this period,” said Dhlomo.

The stepping down of MAC co-chairperson, internationally respected Professor Salim Abdool Karim, also fuelled speculation that government’s strategy was in disarray. However, he said in a statement that his contract had come to an end and that he was returning to his academic commitments.

He will be replaced by Professor Koleka Mlisana.

Despite the mounting outrage, government continues to remain optimistic over its handling of the pandemic and the implementation of its vaccination project.

At a post-Cabinet briefing on Thursday, the acting Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said that government expected to vaccinate 1.5 million health care workers by May 17, 13 million people from May to October and to cover the remainder of the population during the period November to February 2022.