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South Africa ‘now unlikely’ to achieve herd immunity target – here’s why

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and a set of unique circumstances has dramatically altered the outlook of South Africa’s vaccine programme. An expert advising the government on its COVID-19 response has stated that the chances of reaching herd immunity in this country are now ‘extremely slim’.

Vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi, a lead investigator on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine trial in South Africa, said the local variant and the third wave of infections expected later this year were likely to hinder inoculation plans. The 501Y.V2 strain is only dominant on our shores and is capable of ‘evading the full impact’ of these jabs.

“We need to recalibrate… our understanding of what we can actually achieve with COVID-19 vaccines. The notion of getting to herd immunity… at least with this first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, is extremely slim.”


The term refers to a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that can occur when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, either through vaccinations or a high number of previous infections.

The ANC government aims to vaccinate 67% of its population – around 40 million people – to achieve herd immunity by year’s end. Substantial quantities of the vaccines are only expected in April and May. However, infections are expected to resurge as soon as April, triggering another peak in new cases and hospitalisations.

On Monday, South Africa moved to Level 1 of lockdown, as new cases continue to fall. But with the Easter break and a colder winter season coming up, the challenges of mass gatherings and favourable conditions for a resurgence of the virus are almost certain to see restrictions tighten again from the halfway point of 2021.  The African Health Research Institute director Professor Willem Hanekom said in most countries, the third wave quickly followed the second wave and South Africa should brace for it.

Inoculations started last month with jabs developed by US pharma giant Johnson & Johnson. The rollout was briefly delayed after a study found that AstraZeneca vaccines – the first doses to land in the country – only offered limited protection against mild and moderate disease caused by the new variant.

To see a population level impact of the vaccination programme we will need at least 40 million people vaccinated.  At the moment we are on 6 000 and 7 000 people vaccinated per day which is very slow.  We need to get up to 150 000 to 300 000 people a day to have a serious impact.




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