TOKYO, JAPAN - MAY 23: A protester holds a banner
A protest against the forthcoming Tokyo Olympic Games on May 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
  • The Sisonke project, which vaccinated healthcare workers against Covid-19, will use its last thousand doses this week.
  • They will be going to rugby players, and sports stars on their way to the Olympics, who are designated elite athletes.
  • Athletes in some sporting codes have raised concerns about the ethics of jumping the vaccine queue – and about perception.
  • But the South African Medical Research Council says the athletes are a solid choice as recipients, now that Pfizer vaccines are available to older people.
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* This article has been updated below.

If all goes well, the last thousand doses of J&J's Covid-19 vaccine made available via the Sisonke project will be used this week. They will be going to rugby players, members of South Africa's Olympic team, and other elite athletes.

That is a good use for what is – for the time being, though hopefully not very much longer – the only one-dose vaccine shots available in South Africa, says the South African Medical Research Council (MRC). Especially because sports stars must travel.

"They can't wait for the two-dose Pfizer," MRC head Glenda Gray told Business Insider South Africa. "They may get one dose, then miss the second dose."

If it survives calls for postponement or cancellation, the summer Olympics are due to start on 23 July. Thanks to a 42-day wait between Pfizer doses, and a 14-day wait after that before recipients are cleared for travel, those who receive the Pfizer vaccine this week will not be ready to go to Tokyo before August.

See also | SA’s vaccinated seniors could be holidaying in Europe by August – or earlier, if they get J&J shot

But getting the J&J vaccine this week will see recipients considered safe to travel before the middle of June.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize disclosed that sporting stars will receive leftover J&J doses in mid May, saying the MRC would use those vaccine shots "to conduct important studies and programmes that will help us to understand how the vaccines work for population groups such as persons living with HIV and other co-morbidities, elite athletes, pregnant and lactating women and other special groups".

Various sporting bodies had approached the MRC about that problem, Gray said, and the Sisonke trial approached the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) for a waiver that allows the use of vaccines that had been earmarked for healthcare workers in what had been billed as a "pragmatic, real world Phase 3b clinical trial".

For logistical reasons, the last doses could not have been easily folded into the delivery of vaccines via government's Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS), Gray said.

South Africa expects to have access to a large consignment of J&J vaccine doses imminently, but those remain blocked under a halt first called because of rare instances of blood clots in recipients. The Sisonke trial was not affected by that halt.

With Pfizer vaccine doses available to over-60s, inoculating athletes with J&J doses had been seen as a way to use vaccines that may otherwise go to waste, and so freeing up Pfizer doses, Gray said.

But with much debate around queue-jumping – on Wednesday blamed for the temporary shut-down of registration for remaining healthcare workers – and the ethics of younger people getting vaccines before senior citizens, some athletes have been concerned about becoming early vaccine recipients.

Some sporting codes are also understood to be concerned about the public relations impact of being prioritised for vaccines – while simultaneously being concerned about the consequences of failing to return to international competition due to SA's relatively slow vaccine rollout. 

"At the end of the day these individuals are ambassadors for our country, they have to travel to do their jobs and they need to be vaccinated. We are glad we could assist," said Sisonke co-national principal investigator Linda Gail Bekker in a statement issued by the MRC late Tuesday afternoon.

But the plan drew heavy criticism, and raised questions about the system of prioritisation within the Pfizer rollout.

"It is wrong and unethical, and all administered shots must now be audited," said Health Justice Initiative head Fatima Hassan of the Sisonke extension to elite athletes.

"The system has been adjusted to suit interests that have nothing to do with public health need and equity, in a time of supply scarcity."

Union representatives for essential workers said they would approach Mkhize for a meeting to discuss what they characterised as prioritising sporting celebrities above those who can help keep South Africa operational during a third wave.

* This article was updated after publication to include comments from a statement subsequently issued by the MRC, and reaction by the Health Justice Initiative and unions.

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