Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL

Chief rabbi Warren Goldstein’s submission was truly unfortunate, with mistakes, errors, half-truths and non-truths abounding throughout the piece (“Our leaders prove immune to vaccination efforts”, June 29).

The employment of these mistruths by the chief rabbi to smear government and blame it for the casualties of the third wave of Covid-19 needs to be addressed. 

Regarding the SA government’s sale of AstraZeneca vaccine earlier in the year, Goldstein rails against the “ineptitude” of government because there is “already evidence that the vaccine prevented serious infections, hospitalisations ...” What evidence does he have of the efficacy of AstraZeneca against the Beta variant (B.1.351) that was raging in SA when this decision was made? If so, he should definitely share the medical/scientific source of this novel information.  Our experts certainly are not aware of this “finding”.

He then laments that we are even behind many other middle-income countries: “... why so many other middle-income countries have done a much better job vaccinating their people”. Indeed, they have vaccinated more people, many more people. But what is not mentioned is which vaccines have been used. In the main it is vaccines from China and Russia. These vaccines have as yet no supporting evidence of effectiveness against the Beta variant and are, furthermore, not registered with regulatory authorities in Western countries, and also not with our own regulatory authority, the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority.

Yes, Goldstein is correct that Chile did vaccinate well over 60% of its population, and in fact the country achieved one of the highest vaccine coverages in the world. However, it is only now coming out with one of the most severe epidemics of Covid-19 in the world! Last week its recorded case and death rates far exceeded those in SA. Almost identical scenarios were played out in a number of other middle-income countries succumbing to political pressure, rather than scientific wisdom, in choice of vaccine and management of vaccine rollout.

Can one imagine what this country would have looked like had government bowed to populist pressure and simply rolled out any of those vaccines, just to get the numbers up? Gratitude might be a more appropriate response — that instead, the two premium vaccines were procured by government.

The chief rabbi then pulls out of the air that “government has actively blocked efforts in the private sector to procure and distribute the vaccines”. He then proposes “unleashing the private sector to handle the vaccine procurement and rollout”. This is simplistic and naive.  In no country are vaccines procured other than by governments, for very obvious reasons. In SA the private-public partnership has generally functioned very well. Unequivocally, the position of organised business has always remained to complement and support government in its management of the vaccine rollout.

SA has faced a number of challenges, unfortunately more than most countries, most of them not of its making and outside the responsibility of anyone in this country. First, the country and the region were, until recently, almost uniquely dominated by the most vaccine-resistant variant — the Beta variant. As a result, SA was limited in its choice of vaccines to only two — Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.

Second, the original plan to focus on AstraZeneca vaccine had to be switched urgently after after its inadequacies against the Beta variant were discovered. Fortunately, the switch to the effective J&J vaccine delayed the onset of the rollout by a mere two days. And third, the pipeline had to be temporarily interrupted twice by safety signals coming from the US.

Of course, the government and the vaccine rollout programme are certainly not above criticism. Of course mistakes have been made and will probably still be made — which Western country has not acknowledged errors in its handling of this novel pandemic? However, we need to acknowledge that we have a government that bases its decisions on sound scientific advice, coming from several expert committees advising it. It has stood firm to ensure the safety of its citizens through an independent SA Health Products Regulatory Authority of international stature, to assure the country of the safety and efficacy of health products, including vaccines.

And yet, over and above these challenges, the government has procured sufficient supplies of the two premium Covid-19 vaccines for its citizens — this against intense global competition. The management of the epidemic, including the vaccination programme, requires buy-in and a partnership between the authorities, professionals and the public. Public trust and confidence are fragile. Undermining, demeaning and blaming authority and the programme can itself lead to the heartbreak the chief rabbi alluded to so graphically.

His piece helps no-one.

Barry Schoub

Schoub chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid Vaccines, in his private capacity. He receives no remuneration for his advisory services to the Department of Health

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