Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says that there is concern over a third wave of Covid-19 post-Easter (4 April) as the country continues to roll out its vaccinations strategy.
Speaking as part of a Wits panel discussion on Covid-19 vaccine on Monday (1 March), Mkhize said: “We are all concerned about the possibility of a third wave, or resurgence after Easter (April),” he said, adding that the virus will likely spread again in winter.
Easter time is typically a period of family gatherings, holiday breaks, and increased alcohol consumption – all of which have been closely associated with a rising number of Covid-19 cases.
Mkhize said that by the end of March, the country should have access to at least 1.1 million vaccines, which will come from Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. Additional vaccines are expected in May and June, with exact numbers still being assessed.
The acceleration of vaccines is expected from April, May and June. “At that point we are actually negotiating much higher numbers of vaccines,” he said.
The hold-up is that manufacturers have not yet committed to those numbers, but larger numbers are expected to come in the third and fourth quarter, the minister said.
How frequently the South African variant changes is constantly creating new information, which changes the dynamic of any discussions.
Mkhize said that announcements around what can be done with vaccines to ensure they are more effective against variants will be made over the next few days. New information is coming in constantly that needs to be factored in.
Dropping your guard
Mkhize said that there are also worries that people might start to feel more relaxed now that the second wave is over, and the country’s lockdown has eased, which could lead to complacency around preventative measures and protocols.
Infections have, in the past, followed a pattern of increasing once lockdown restrictions have eased.
President Cyril Ramaphosa loosened coronavirus restrictions in South Africa on Sunday evening as the rate of new infections dropped, scrapping most limits on alcohol sales, shortening a night-time curfew and permitting larger public gatherings.
The move to virus alert level 1, from level 3, comes a year after the first Covid-19 case was detected in the country, and will remove most remaining shackles on the struggling economy, Ramaphosa said.
“Our approach has always been that restrictions should not remain in place longer than is absolutely necessary,” Ramaphosa said. “The threat of the third wave is constantly present, as is the threat of new variants.”
The average daily number of new coronavirus cases has dropped to less than 1,500, from a peak of about 22,000 in early January. More than 1.5 million people in South Africa have been diagnosed with the disease, and almost 50,000 of them have died.
The country began a vaccination program on 17 February inoculating health-care workers with a single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot and more than 67,000 have been inoculated so far.
The second phase of the vaccine roll-out is due to begin in April or early May and cover the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
The country has signed a deal to buy 11 million Johnson & Johnson shots, with 2.8 million to be delivered in the second quarter and the rest spread throughout the year, according to Ramaphosa.
Pfizer Inc had agreed to supply South Africa with another 20 million doses while deals had been also been struck with other vaccine suppliers, he said.
“From a vaccine-availability point of view, we will be secured,” he said. “‘The number of sites that will be available for vaccination will be expanded next week from 17 sites to 49.”