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If SA does not vaccinate soon, it could face a third wave – expert

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SA virologist calls for rapid vaccination roll-out to achieve population immunity

File picture: Pexels

EXPERT virologist Professor Marc Mendelson is calling for rapid vaccination to achieve population immunity in South Africa.

Mendelson, head of the UCT’s Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, said that without rapid vaccination of at least two thirds of the population, South Africa would see yet another wave of Covid-19 cases.

Mendelson was speaking during a virtual Summer School lecture titled “Covid-19 Insights and Lessons”.

According to Mendelson, who was chairperson of the first South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 (Clinicians group), and is now a member of the committee on Covid-19’s second iteration, this pandemic has been the greatest challenge to the public health system that the country’s has ever seen.

“It is associated with a scientific endeavour that we have never seen before. We’re definitely better off a year down the line, but there are a huge number of things that we need to answer. As a country we still face deep problems with severe issues around vaccine strategy, and we haven’t even talked about vaccine denial,” he said.

SA is currently gripped by a second wave of Covid-19 infections and scientists have identified a new variant – 501.V2 – which is driving the infection surge in the country.

Scientists detected a new strain in parts of South Africa in September last year, which has since dominated most of the infections in the country.

Mendelson said the new strain contains a large number of mutations, and the viruses that scientists continue to genotype have emerged with the same mutations.

“These mutations sit in the area of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, which antibodies generally recognise. Antibodies and T-cell immunity recognise the same areas, and these recognition sites are critical in our fight against the virus. If the genetic material protein changes and the spike protein changes in this variant, there is a possibility that our immune system won’t work as well,” he explained.

Mendelson said that scientists have many unanswered questions about the new strain, including whether current vaccines would offer protection against it, and whether people previously infected with a different strain would have immunity against the new variant.

He added that scientific evidence was rapidly being worked on by a research consortium across South Africa to find out exactly what’s happening and what the answers would be.

Speaking on government’s vaccine roll-out plan, Mendelson said the plan would be divided into three categories: phase 1 will focus on front-line health workers; phase 2 will focus on essential workers, the elderly and persons with comorbidities; and phase 3 will focus on other people 18 years and older.

“The bottom line is that our response has been slow, even though it is now accelerating. We’ve been promised by the president that 67% of the population is going to be vaccinated by the end of the year. Remember, kids under 16 don’t get vaccinated, so we are talking about 40 million people who need to be vaccinated,” he said.

While Mendelson said he’s not able to describe exactly what it would look like and what its effects would be, without rapid vaccination to achieve population immunity, a third wave was definitely on the cards.

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