2020 was a rough year. We put up a fight and did our best to maintain our sanity under lockdown. We lost jobs and loved ones thanks to COVID-19. 2021 started with a glimpse of hope when we heard scientists had developed a vaccine and roll out was being initiated in countries around the world.

South Africa had a bumpy start to the vaccine journey with the roll out of the AstraZeneca vaccine being suspended after it failed to clearly stop the variant of the virus presenting in the country. This was quite a blow because South Africa had just received 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India.

All was not lost, though, as the South African government subsequently secured 500 000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. On Wednesday 17 February, South Africa became the first country to roll out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after receiving 80 000 doses the day before.

Even with the roll out in full swing, however, many questions remain unanswered. For example, is this vaccine more effective than its predecessors? What is South Africa’s roll out plan? And, perhaps the question on most people’s minds – is it safe?

What is a vaccine?

A vaccine is a substance used to stimulate the production of antibodies (proteins used by the immune system to neutralise foreign objects). It provides immunity against one or several diseases. It is prepared from the causative agent (virus, bacteria, parasites), its products, or a synthetic substitute and treated to act as an antigen without inducing the disease.

In other words, certain molecules from the virus or bacteria are introduced into the body to trigger an immune response. These molecules are called antigens. Once injected into the body, the body will then recognise them and know how to fight them in the future.

People have been vaccinated since the vaccine was first developed for many different diseases. We get vaccinated for flu, children get vaccinated for Tuberculosis, Polio, Rotavirus Gastroenteritis, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Whooping cough, Haemophilus Influenza type B, Hepatitis B, Pneumococcal Infection, and Measles.

How does the Johnson & Johnson vaccine work?

The vaccine uses a modified version of a human virus called the Adenovirus 26 to carry a COVID-19 gene into human cells. COVID-19 proteins are then created in the cells but not the virus itself.

What does this mean? When injected, the vaccine trains your immune system to fight the virus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine does NOT contain COVID-19 and will NOT give you COVID-19.

If you contract the virus after you have taken the vaccine, your immune system will know what it is dealing with so you will either not fall ill or if you do, your symptoms will be mild.

What are the advantages?

Unlike the AstraZeneca vaccine which was first procured by the South African government, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has proven effective in working against the specific COVID-19 variant in the country. It offers 57% protection against moderate to severe infections, 85% protection against severe infections and 100% protection against death.

This vaccine also requires only one dose, which is a big advantage when it comes to medical care infrastructure and cost.

Protection from infection starts as early as 14 days after getting the injection. That said, full protection is measured after 28 days.

Is the vaccine safe?

Since word got around of the vaccine being produced, conspiracy theories abounded about the COVID-19 vaccine. YouTube videos saying that the vaccine was embedded with a microchip to track our movement went viral. Rumours that it was a plot by Bill Gates to control the world’s population were rampant. These are all false. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe.

According to Dr Nitin Desai, Chief Medical Officer of COVID PreCheck, “the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an acceptable safety profile and could be an alternative for some with a history of allergies to other vaccines or their ingredients.”

Well-trained scientists from around the world have been working tirelessly and working together to bring the vaccine to us. On Wednesday 17 February President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the first to be vaccinated among health workers as vaccination took place at Khayelitsha District Hospital in the Western Cape.

What is South Africa’s vaccination plan?

There will be three phases to the roll-out of the vaccine:

  • Phase 1: Frontline healthcare workers (nurses, doctors etc.)
  • Phase 2: Essential workers (police officers, miners, security workers, retail workers, teachers, workers in the banking sector, funeral workers, prison workers, home affairs and border control)
  • Phase 2: People in care homes, 60 years and older, people 18 and older with co-morbidities and those working in the hospitality and tourism industry.
  • Phase 3: The rest of the population. 

How do we know when we’re in the clear?

The goal with the COVID-19 roll-out is to reach herd immunity. What does this mean? This is when enough of the population is immune to a certain disease, in this case COVID-19, and it provides indirect protection to those who are not immune to it, because the spread is less prone to happen. For South Africa to achieve herd immunity, we need to vaccinate 67% of the population (roughly 40 million people) according to the minister of health, Dr Zweli Mkhize.

All in all, there is no need to panic. The conspiracy theories you’ve heard about are not true and the vaccine we have in South Africa is safe. Let’s hope that 2021 will be a better year for our country; one in which we see our people returning to their normal lives once again.


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