The Department of Health appeared before the Portfolio Committee on Health recently to brief the committee on the acquisition of other vaccines, the vaccine roll-out programme and on the new Delta variant, which is fuelling South Africa’s third wave of Covid-19 infections and seen the country revert to level 4 lockdown.

According to the department’s Deputy Director-General, Dr Anban Pillay, the Delta variant is more infectious than previous strains. This means that the department and the government’s inter-ministerial advisory council has had to review mitigation strategies. The Delta variant has an infection ratio of 1:4 rather than 1, as with previous variants. This means that if one person tests positive, he or she is likely to infect 3 to 4 persons, rather than just 1 person as was the case previously.

 When asked by the committee why Gauteng has seen more infections in this third wave than other provinces, Dr Pillay said: “It’s the economic hub of the country. As a result, there’s so much activity of people travelling in and out of it, and is the mostly densely populated province in the country.”

Although the Delta variant first arose in India, Dr Pillay informed the committee that it is now prevalent in many countries around the world. However, the new lockdown measures will save lives and to give the health sector time to consolidate resources, including hospital beds, medical personnel, oxygen and ventilators to accommodate the rising number of infections. “Given its high infection rate, it means there will be higher hospitalisation rate and higher demand for hospital beds and medical personnel.”

When asked by the committee about the differences between the Delta variant and those that preceded it, Dr Pillay stated that this version of the virus is so strong that it may reinfect people, even those who have been vaccinated. He cited Seychelles as a case in point. “Seychelles has well over 100 000 population and they were all vaccinated, but when the Delta variant hit their shores most of its citizens were infected.”

The department could not escape the criticism for the slow pace of the vaccine roll out. The Acting Minister of Health, Ms Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, noted that the government would like to see more people vaccinated by now, especially the ones over 60 years of age. But low registration and uptake of vaccination are also to blame for the low numbers thus far.

The committee pressed for the current vaccination figures. According the department, as of last week four million people have registered and 3 million have been vaccinated. The registration of the 50+ age group started recently and will receive their vaccinations in the coming weeks. Committee members asked about the slow pace of registration and why the department does not open registration and vaccination to a first-come, first-served basis. Dr Pillay explained that the age rational is based on the fact that there is a high mortality rate in these groups compared to others, even if they have comorbidities.

The department assured the committee that the is enough vaccine supply to meet current targets and the opening of additional vaccination sites in July and August will speed up the process. In response, the committee asked for a roll-out plan with targets and time-frames. They also encouraged the department to be more communicative with the general public about health matters relating to Covid-19, such as hospital availability, screening sites, ventilator availability and other issues.

 The Acting Minister said: “We now have a multi-pronged communication and roll-out plan which we will present to the committee in due course. While we will be registering and vaccinating the over-50 persons, we will also vaccinate those in security and retail clusters, in transportation such as taxi drivers.” The department will monitor the impact of these vaccinations and this will be reported to the committee.

The Chairperson of the committee, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, said: “The lack of data on the side effects of the vaccines remains a thorny issue and can be blamed for the low uptake of the vaccine.” He added: “Other than Sisonke’s report, which has alluded to 50 people who had side effects from vaccination thus far, there is no official statistics from the department and that is concerning. We need to get a full picture of the vaccination story, so that we can communicate to our constituencies.”

People do not know what to believe about the vaccines, Dr Dhlomo said, and rumours abound. This needs to be corrected if the uptake of vaccinations is to improve. He commended the provincial Department of Health in Limpopo for bringing the vaccine to the people in far-flung rural areas. This should be emulated by other provinces to increase the uptake of vaccine.

Abel Mputing
5 July 2021