By Jessie Taylor
As South Africa begins to exit its fourth wave, citizens are encouraged to bolster their immunity against Covid-19 with booster shots. Evidence gathered during the fourth wave, driven by the Omicron variant, has shown the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing the risk of severe illness.
With encouraging data emerging on vaccine effectiveness, Health Minister Dr. Joe Phaahla has reiterated that full vaccination of at least 70% of South Africa’s adult population remains the Department of Health’s “main priority”.
Rolling out additional protection
The Department of Health has made booster shots available for the two COVID-19 vaccines available in South Africa. The booster shots have been approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). They are available two months after the first Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccination and six months after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Booster doses are the same vaccine in the same dose administered to people who have had a primary vaccination series and are administered to allow the body to boost its immunity to the COVID-19 virus.
Those in older age groups will be the first to qualify for their booster shots, as they were the first to receive jabs during the initial rollout of the vaccination programme. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases of South Africa (NICD), vaccines have been shown to reduce severe disease and mortality from COVID-19 by up to 95 to 97%.
“This life-saving effect has continued, even as variants have emerged. Taking a vaccine will protect you and your loved ones from a devastating illness or death,” the NICD says.
“Booster vaccination with the J&J or Pfizer vaccine is a reliable and safe way of increasing antibody levels.”
Those eligible for a booster shot will not be sent an SMS from the health department, as with their primary vaccination. Instead, they will need to present themselves at any vaccination site for their additional dose. However, their Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) record will remain open, and the system will allow you to get the booster shot. Once administered, this information will be captured on the system and recorded on your existing or a new vaccination card.
You will be required to get the same vaccine as your primary dose, as SAHRPA has not licensed mix-and-match vaccines.
Growing evidence of vaccine effectiveness
The rollout of booster shots is likely to make a critical difference in the country’s response to the Omicron variant. The variant has been found more likely to cause illness in people with immunity from prior infection or vaccination.The variant has been found to partially evade the immunity provided by vaccines, but booster shots have shown promise in providing additional protection.
The Honourable Dr. Phaahla says there is unequivocal evidence that vaccines protect against severe illness and death. The department has been collating evidence that shows that vaccines are still effective against severe illness and death, with the majority of those hospitalised with COVID-19 being unvaccinated. He has urged the public to receive their COVID-19 jabs after a drop off in vaccine uptake over the festive season.
“The protection of vaccines against severe illnesses is uncontested, as we can see now with the fourth wave, and as we saw with the protection of health workers and educators in the third wave.”
Minster Phaahla adds that the power to dull the impact of the virus rests with the public and that vaccination remains the tool to return our lives to normality.
“We have seen that while we cannot predict the future trajectory of the COVID-19 virus and its variants but learning from the way we have been able to deal with the fourth wave and the protection of vaccines, the future does look brighter if we all do our best – that is to be vaccinated.”
How do booster shots work?
Booster shots work like your primary vaccine doses. The vaccines contain genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19. This gives our cells instructions for making a harmless protein that is unique to the virus. After our cells make copies of the protein, they destroy the genetic material from the vaccine. Our bodies then make the antibodies to this protein, which can be used to fight COVID-19 infection.
Booster shots increase your antibody levels and ‘T-cell responses’ to COVID-19. Laboratory testing has shown that high antibody levels are more effective at neutralising COVID-19 variants, such as Omicron. This means that booster vaccines will improve your protection against infection and will reduce your chances of developing severe illness should you become infected.
South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination at a glance
More than 29.3 million vaccine doses have been administered in South Africa. Of the almost 40 million adults in South Africa, 46% have received at least one vaccine dose, and 40% have been fully vaccinated with their primary vaccine doses.
The 60 years and older age group has had the highest vaccine uptake, with 67% having received at least one vaccination. The 50 to 59 age cohort has the second-highest uptake, with 63% of those in this age group receiving at least one vaccine dose.
Half of all the women in the county have had at least one jab, while 42% of all men have had at least one vaccine dose.
More than one million vaccine doses have been administered to children older than 12.