The 500,000 healthcare workers that formed part of the country’s first vaccine rollout study, known as the Sisonke 1 trial, last year, will be first in line to receive their Johnson & Johnson (J&J) booster shots.
And unlike the first trial, which got off to a rather slow start, Sisonke 2 intends to kick off guns blazing, with over 400 booster-shot sites located in all nine provinces.
Sisonke 1 healthcare workers volunteered to get the J&J vaccine from mid-February to mid-May this year.
Get boosted before the fourth wave
South African Medical Research Council president and head of the Sisonke vaccination study, Professor Glenda Gray, said during the Department of Health’s Covid-19 media briefing on Friday that the Sisonke 2 programme must be done before the fourth wave.
Gray said they had until 15 December to vaccinate the 500,000 healthcare workers, and that the programme was set to “scale up” from next week.
“The second dose of J&J is durable. We are looking forward to an evidence-based boost for workers,” she said.
Desmond Tutu HIV Centre director and co-lead investigator of the Sisonke trial, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, said queues for Sisonke 2 were not expected, but that time to rollout booster shots was limited.
“We want our colleagues to move quickly, to get their vouchers downloaded and to get to sites to get their boost ahead of that fourth wave.”
Integral data for the future
The second phase of the Sisonke programme is to try and establish how to move the country’s booster-shot strategy forward. It is integral to rollout such a trial out to provide evidence for government, Gray explained.
This includes studying how well the Covid-19 vaccine has performed in the field, and the timing of the booster shots.
She said the longer the J&J can be spread out, the better the evidence of the vaccine’s durability in a local context will be.
Virologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Maureen Ferran, said in an article on The Conversation that people who received the J&J vaccine continued to produce antibodies for at least six months.
After this, neutralising antibody levels begin to wane. However, it is not yet clear if this means an increased risk of severe infection.
The World Health Organization said the J&J vaccine is 66.9% effective against Covid-19.
What about healthcare workers who got Pfizer?
Healthcare workers who received the two-dose Pfizer vaccine would also be receiving their booster shots in due course, but because J&J shots were administered first, these workers are being prioritised.
Also, workers who received the Pfizer jab did not form part of the Sisonke 1 trial.
Phaahla said the department had received enquiries about booster shots for Pfizer-immunised healthcare workers, but that approval was also needed from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) first.
This, he explained, is because Pfizer is a two-dose vaccine.
“The third dose will have to go through regulatory approvals. When we are ready, with approvals, announcements will be made.”