Picture: 123RF/S SILVER
Picture: 123RF/S SILVER

Having read both Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s criticism of the government’s vaccine rollout (“Our leaders prove immune to vaccination efforts,” June 29) and Prof Barry Schoub’s response (“Undermining the vaccine programme helps no-one,” July 1), one can only conclude that the latter missed the point, since the letter is rife with misdirection.

As chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Coronavirus Vaccines, Prof Schoub is a long-standing defender of government’s vaccine rollout strategy. Yet he fails to respond to the primary complaint — that the government didn't bother to order vaccines until at least January 2021 other than relying on the Covax facility. Many other countries, including our middle-income peers, used advanced market commitment mechanisms to pre-order allocations of vaccines conditional upon their successful trials and regulatory authorisation.

While Prof Schoub claims that “government has procured sufficient supplies of the two premium Covid-19 vaccines for its citizens”, this is patently false. In March it was reported that SA needs to vaccinate 140,000 people a day to meet its targets. It has yet to reach that number even once. By the end of that month, in a clear admission of failure, government abandoned its ambition to vaccinate two thirds of South Africans, instead revising its target to only 22-million people, or just over a third of the population.

In January, the government reported having “secured” 20-million doses, to be delivered in the first half of 2021. To date only 6.5-million doses have been delivered, and an additional three-million have been sold on or returned. This adds up to less than half of the promised 20-million.

Many other targets were set, only to be missed, and promises made, only to be broken. SA has not procured sufficient supplies. At best, it has promised to procure sufficient supplies in the future. This makes Goldstein’s basic argument — that more people would have been protected from the third wave had government’s vaccine rollout been more successful — perfectly valid.

Prof Schoub explains the relative success of other middle-income countries by saying they used vaccines “from China and Russia”, which he implies are inferior. He presents no evidence that those vaccines are indeed less effective than those SA has authorised and procured. Not two days after his letter, the SA regulator indeed approved the use of Sinovac, from China.

Prof Schoub's comments about Chile, which is experiencing a new wave of infections despite having vaccinated 60% of its population, are a misdirection. He fails to mention that Chile’s death rate continues to decline despite this new wave, and now stands at 2.13%, down from a peak of over 15% in its first wave in March 2020. This is clear evidence that its vaccine rollout is working.

Prof Schoub demands evidence of the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against the Beta variant, but neglects to mention that the decision not to use those vaccines was based on a single, small study that made no finding about the vaccine’s efficacy against severe disease or death due to that variant. There appears to be no evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine would not have been effective against severe disease, and there is firm evidence that it would have been effective against the Delta variant fuelling the third wave.

His claim that “[we] have a government that bases its decisions on sound scientific advice” is outrageous in light of the well-documented disregard of scientific advice and its sidelining and silencing of scientific critics. It also persisted with lockdown regulations that defy all scientific evidence, such as the ban on tobacco, the closure of outdoor spaces, and the decision to allow taxis to operate at full capacity.

Finally, Prof Schoub dismisses Rabbi Goldstein’s suggestion that the private sector should have been more involved as “simplistic and naïve”, and that this has not happened anywhere else. Perhaps this is because governments elsewhere have not failed as badly. It seems more naïve to expect this government, with its storied record of failure, to procure enough vaccines quickly enough to reduce the impact of the third and future waves of Covid-19.

Prof Schoub argues that Rabbi Goldstein’s criticism “undermines” both “authority” and “the programme”, neither of which is true. Nothing in Rabbi Goldstein’s article suggests that widespread vaccination ought not to be pursued, that people should not get vaccinated, or that non-pharmaceutical interventions ought to be abandoned.

Criticism can only serve to improve the vaccine rollout programme. It is the mark of servile authoritarianism to accuse good-faith critics of government actions of “undermining authority”. It is callous, too. It shows no empathy or recognition of how sick some people are and the trauma of death for so many families.

Ivo Vegter
Via e-mail

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