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Picture: 123RF/anyaivanova
Picture: 123RF/anyaivanova

The Covid-19 vaccination rate among Discovery’s SA employees has risen from barely a fifth to 94% in the three months since it announced plans to make jabs compulsory from January 1, CEO Adrian Gore announced on Tuesday.

Health and life insurer Discovery was one of the first JSE-listed companies to introduce a mandatory vaccination policy and was swiftly followed by a growing number of firms that now include private hospital groups Mediclinic and Life Healthcare, and insurers Sanlam and Old Mutual.

Several universities have followed suit, including Wits, the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and the University of the Free State, but the government has yet to require its employees to get immunised.

"We are an organisation that believes in incentives. But when you have [so much] misinformation, I don’t think incentives work. You need regulation. Hence the mandate," said Gore in an interview with Business Day.

Gore said the company was working hard to persuade staff who had objected to vaccination to change their minds, but accepted that some may ultimately leave the company.

"That’s inevitable. We are saving lives. We have to do the right thing," he said.

As of Friday, 583 of Discovery’s 9,919 SA-based employees had yet to get vaccinated, of whom 246 said they plan to do so and 337 had formally objected.

The detection last week of a new coronavirus variant, dubbed Omicron, and rapidly rising cases in SA have come as the government scrambles to shore up flagging demand for vaccines. Despite abundant supplies and more than 2,000 vaccination sites around the country, daily rates have fallen from a high of 280,000 to about 120,000. In addition, only 36% of the adult population is fully immunised.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday that a task team had been set up to look at mandatory vaccination and restricting access to public places only to people who had been vaccinated.

Stepping up SA’s coverage is vital as the country enters its fourth wave of infections, Gore said. Vaccinated populations also reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging.

Omicron has dozens of mutations, which have sent scientists racing to figure out if it is more transmissible and more adept than other variants at evading the protection conferred by prior infection or vaccination.

It is too soon to be sure, but there is "general consensus" that even if vaccines are less effective at preventing the spread of Omicron, they provide good protection against severe disease, Discovery chief commercial officer Ronald Whelan said.

Discovery has presented real-world data showing that three months after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose regimen, the 1.2-million vaccinated members of schemes administered by Discovery Health had a 79% reduced risk of infection compared with unvaccinated people. If they did get Covid-19, they were 92% less likely to be admitted to hospital and 94% less likely to die than those who had not been inoculated.

If Discovery could convince 40% of the employees with objections, and 63% of those who said they planned to get vaccinated to do so, 97% of staff could be immunised by the peak of the fourth wave, it said.

Covid-19 has already led to 15,000 deaths among members of schemes administered by Discovery Health, and has killed 22 of its employees.

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