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Picture: BLOOMBERG.
Picture: BLOOMBERG.

The national department of health has blocked access to data on vaccinations to researchers from the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), raising concerns that scientific studies into the efficacy of Covid-19 jabs and the transmissibility of the disease could be held back.

In a media statement on Monday, the SAMRC said the department of health had blocked access to data on its electronic vaccination data system to its researchers.

The system is also the government’s self-registration site for vaccinations.

The blockage — pending the tightening of the data sharing agreement between the department and the SAMRC — comes at a time when the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is seeing a resurgence of infections and a fourth wave in Gauteng and other provinces.

This is likely to lead to a meeting soon of the national coronavirus command council, probably this week.

Several ministers sit on the council, which gathers medical scientific evidence and inputs from different economic and social sectors and submits reports to the cabinet for final decisions on the management of the pandemic. Reports from the command council have frequently resulted in a change in the level of restrictions.

SAMRC chief specialist scientist Debbie Bradshaw said it is “important for researchers to have access to information about who has received the vaccine so that we can link this with the data that we have on breakthrough infections and deaths. If we are able to put the data together, we can get a picture of how well the vaccines work, which is particularly important in the context of a new variant.”

Information about the level of vaccinations also contributes to an understanding about the extent of immunity to infections that has been achieved.

SAMRC head of corporate communications Alfred Thutloa said the data is needed to evaluate the efficacy of vaccines “which has become extremely important in the context of Omicron. It is also important to be able to monitor the safety of vaccines. The SAMRC is not getting this data routinely and Prof Gray [SAMRC president and CEO Glenda Gray] is in discussion with the national department of health to be able to secure it”.

Health department spokesperson Foster Mohale said the data-sharing agreement between the SAMRC and the department had to be tightened to address the issue of confidentiality of individual information about vaccinations. “We are trying to tighten loose ends.”

The SAMRC said it is working with the department of health to amend their data-sharing agreement.

Excess deaths 

The SAMRC tracks the number of excess deaths, or those above that expected in any given week, based on historical data since the early days of the pandemic. This data is essential to determine the toll that the pandemic is taking and the severity of the different Covid-19 variants active in the population at any one time.

To get this data, it requires the collaboration of a number of government entities.

“Every week, the SAMRC burden of disease research unit shares an updated report on weekly deaths in SA. This has been possible through the sharing of health data from the national department of health, the department of home affairs and Stats SA. Data on all deaths registered on the national population register are provided by the department of home affairs to the SAMRC and have been used to prepare annual rapid mortality surveillance reports, and during 2020-2021 to prepare reports on weekly deaths,” the SAMRC statement said.

“In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become essential to track the weekly number of deaths that occur. Deaths recorded on the national population register are provided to the SAMRC on a weekly basis. These have been scaled up to estimate the actual number of deaths by accounting for the people who are not on the population register and the under-registration of deaths.”

The SAMRC noted that SA has world-class scientists who have produced research that has made an important contribution to the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Without the support of the national department of health, this research would not have been possible,” Gray said.

“The emergence of the Omicron variant in the current state of disaster has highlighted that the sharing of data between responsible authorities, consistent with constitutional protections regarding privacy, is urgently required to inform an effective public health response. In the spirit of ubuntu, let us work together and strengthen the systems we have to do this,” she said.

The past few weeks have emphasised the importance of the collaboration between the department and scientists,she added.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za

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