No clear indication of when SA's lockdown will end as vaccine targets change – again

Business Insider SA
South Africa lockdown vaccines
(Getty Images)
  • Just under 16 million people – or 40% of the total adult population – have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in South Africa.
  • South Africa's health department had initially hoped to reach at least 67% of adults by December 2021, but this target was later revised to March 2022.
  • Now, the deadline to reach herd immunity has been abandoned and, instead, age differentiated targets are being formalised.
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South Africa's Covid-19 vaccination rollout will adopt age differentiated targets as the push for nationwide herd immunity loses its timeline.  

South Africa's department of health had initially hoped to vaccinate at least 67% of the adult population – around 27 million people – by the end of 2021. But supply and regulatory issues threw some early curveballs at this target, which was revised to March 2022.

Now, almost a year after South Africa's first doses were administered – to healthcare workers as part of the Sisonke Programme – just under 16 million adults have been fully vaccinated.

To achieve the March target, more than 500,000 vaccines would need to be administered every day. At the peak of the vaccination drive, in late August 2021, an average of around 250,000 doses were administered per day.

This was below President Cyril Ramaphosa's target of 300,000 doses per day and the uptake decreased rapidly, because of vaccine hesitancy as opposed to supply constraints, from August onwards.

Levels of average daily vaccinations in the first week of 2022 were comparable to those in late May 2021, when only those aged 60 years and older were eligible for their jabs. Less than 90,000 doses were administered on Thursday.

Vaccines South Africa
(Department of Health)

Ramaphosa has, in the past, put a lot of emphasis on the target of herd or population immunity. When South Africa reaches this target, the country could return to normal, President Ramaphosa reiterated in September.

This normality would bring an end to the coronavirus-induced State of Disaster, which South Africa has been under since March 2020, and associated lockdown levels.

But herd immunity is unlikely to materialise in our lifetimes, according to Professor Shabir Madhi, director of the Vaccines & Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand. And using herd immunity – bringing absolute interruption in the chain of transmission of the virus – as a feasible target is dangerous. Madhi argues that pushing the narrative of herd immunity, amid current and future outbreaks of Covid-19 – is likely to increase vaccine hesitancy.

Dr Nicholas Crisp, acting health director-general, told Business Insider South Africa, during a media briefing on Friday morning, that using herd immunity as a reachable goal was tricky.

"The data shown today illustrates unequivocally the protection that vaccination provides," Crisp started off by saying. "We have learnt long ago that herd immunity will take a very long time to achieve, and we do not know what that level of immunity needs to be."

"Months ago, the department already noted that the targets would not be met but was pleased to see the most vulnerable vaccinating well. So many parts of the country the over 60 vaccination exceeds 75% coverage. So now we are setting age differentiated targets."

Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla had met with provincial leaders and private providers on Thursday, said Crisp, and that the department was "busy writing up what was proposed."

The minister, who made no mention of the new age differentiated targets, maintained that vaccinating 67% of the adult population remained the goal which would ultimately lead to the scrapping of lockdown.

"Our target is still informed by population immunity or herd immunity, which has to be coverage of between 67% and 70% [of the adult population]," said Phaahla, adding that South Africa, which has more than enough doses and vaccination sites, could've reached the 70% target in December 2021 if only it could've convinced the population and successfully combatted vaccine hesitancy.

"Opening up the country, doing away with the Disaster Management [Act], all those things are possible, they are in our hands and the facility which is reliable, tried, and tested is vaccination."

Neither Phaahla nor Crisp could confirm if any timeline was associated with either the 67% herd immunity target or the new age differentiated targets.

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