Sisonke vaccine trial providing lessons on training, scale, say project leaders

It’s been a rocky road for the country in terms of the vaccine with a decision last week to press pause on the Johnson &Johnson vaccine following some extremely rare cases of clotting in a handful of US recipients.

A South African healthcare worker receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

CAPE TOWN - It’s been just over 60 days since South Africa watched President Cyril Ramaphosa get vaccinated against COVID-19.

It’s been a rocky road for the country in terms of the vaccine, with a decision last week to press pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine following some extremely rare cases of clotting in a handful of US recipients.

READ: Zweli Mkhize: SA to temporarily suspend rollout of J&J vaccine

But at every opportunity, scientists and government have urged South Africans to have faith, with the Health minister even saying that he was certain that Johnson & Johnson would be back in the mix very soon.

If that proves true, the Sisonke Mass implementation study ought to be finished by the end of the month.

The study was in some ways meant to provide a blueprint for the mass vaccination campaign.

An impatient nation has been waiting for news of the mass vaccination campaign that we’re all hoping will bring back some sense of normality to our day-to-day lives.

But roadblocks like the decision to temporarily pause the Sisonke implementation study have been psychological blows.

With almost 300,000 healthcare workers vaccinated so far, the project leaders of Sisonke are taking stock of what they’ve learnt from the process and Sisonke study co-principal investigator, Professor Glenda Gray, said that training was a key component.

“We mustn't underestimate that if you want an accurate dose, you have to train people so they know exactly how to fill a syringe. We've also seen there's a shortage of syringes in the country and that the prices of syringes went up from the first time we started to purchase syringes to now.”

Fellow study investigator, Dr Linda-Gail Bekker, said that the past two months had also taught them about scale.

“We've learned a lot about how quickly vaccinators can work, we've understood what is a small, a medium and large centre. Importantly, on Sisonke, we've also set up a very extensive safety desk and we're also learning to monitor and breakthrough COVID infections and how to follow those up.”

South Africa has managed to secure 31 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well as 30 million doses of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine, enough stock to achieve so-called herd immunity.

And the Health minister maintains that even with the pause on the J&J rollout, the nation is on track to begin mass vaccinations this quarter.

WATCH: What SA’s first phase of COVID-19 vaccine rollout taught us

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