Experts clarify COVID-19 vaccine myths

A range of experts from the National Department of Health and various stakeholders appeared on SABC’s Morning Live show on Thursday to answer a host of questions about the safety and efficacy of licensed COVID-19 vaccines.

National Department of Health deputy director general Dr Anban Pillay, Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute Prof Helen Rees, and Prof Jeffrey Mphahlele from the South African Medical Research Council all joined the discussion.

Questions revolved around the safety of the vaccine, whether the process is not being rushed, and whether South Africa will be able to acquire enough dosage.

“The COVID vaccines are currently in a regulatory assessment phase across the world. We have participated in the Covax agreement so we will hear from Covax which vaccine has been allocated to SA. A dossier will be ready early January; we can then expect rollout thereafter. They have advised us to plan for a rollout early in the second quarter,” Pillay said.

Rees said South Africa has already been participating in a number of vaccine trials, the results of which are being monitored extensively.

“SA has been one of the very few African countries that has participated in a number of vaccine trials. We have participated in trials for five different vaccines and more are in the pipeline. Just because we have one effective vaccine now, it doesn’t mean that the studies won’t go on. We are going to have different waves of vaccines where new technologies are coming through in the next year. The Phase three studies are where we have tens of thousands people around the world who are participating to see if the vaccines are safe and effective,” she said.

“All of these trials are very closely monitored for safety. They all have to be approved by regulatory authorities and by ethics committees. In addition, each of these trials have an independent board which looks at the safety of the vaccines as the trials are ongoing – and they will continue to look at safety for a period of time after the vaccine is rolled out.

Once we get a licensed vaccine, one that SAHPRA is able to license, there will also be very careful safety monitoring put in place.”

Asked whether he thought the vaccine was being developed hurriedly, Mphahlele said new technology and a collaboration of effort has resulted in a speedier process.

“One can say that it is too soon given that the vaccine has been developed within a short space of time. I think it is a genuine concern, however, when vaccines are developed, the pathogens are different. Some pathogens take many years to develop a vaccine and some pathogens are easy to develop,” he said.

“The other breakthrough we have with COVID-19 is the current technology is being applied. The use of Messenger RNA technology to develop COVID-19 vaccines is something new and has shown that actually you can bring a vaccine in a short space of time.

Once can say it is too soon given the timeframe, however, we are quite confident that the safety and efficacy of the vaccines reported so far is quite satisfactory. The safety will continue to be monitored even after the rollout of the vaccine.”


Rees said the world must weigh up the benefit against the risk.

“When we think of introducing a vaccine, we have to think about the benefit risk. We know already that this virus is capably of killing people, we know it is capable of making people very sick. About 10 to 15% of people described symptoms of long COVID-19. This is a whole variety of symptoms but a lot of it is things like fatigue, headache, shortness of breath and exercise intolerance. Studies have shown in these conditions that the lungs continue to be really affected and even the heart muscle can be affected. Most of these symptoms will recover but for some people it can drag on in waves for a number of months. For most people, they will fully recover,” she said.

“This is a very nasty virus. When you think about why we are trying to rush through with the vaccine in an unprecedentedly rapid way, it’s because we recognise that this virus is going to continue to sweep round in waves in our communities, causing incredible harm to individuals and the economy and we really have to stop it.

Safety monitoring is being done incredibly rigorously within the clinical trials from the time we first introduce vaccines into human subjects, we look at safety. It continues after we introduce it to populations. If we don’t think something is predominantly safe, we would not push it.”

Asked whether South Africa will receive the required amount of dosages, Pillay said the assistance from the COVAX facility is essential.

“The developing countries have largely been at the back end of receiving vaccines largely because the manufacturers of these vaccines require funding and are obviously looking at countries that will be able to pay higher prices for vaccines. You would have noticed that the US, UK, Canada and the other more developed countries and wealthier nations have been funding the manufacturers of these vaccines very early on and in the process have pre-booked vaccines out of these facilities even before a vaccine was developed,” he said.

“We in the developing world obviously didn’t have that kind of financing to be able to fund huge vaccine trials to the extent they have been financing. What has happened that through the WHO, the COVAX facility has been established. That is intended to achieve equity across the world. If one of us is not safe, all of us are not safe and so it’s really important that everyone has equal access to the vaccine.

The COVAX facility brings together the requirements of all the developing countries and have brought on board now the developed nations as well. Through this process, COVAX will access these vaccines and distribute them to countries.”