South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the first in his country to receive a COVID-19 vaccination to launch the inoculation drive Wednesday, effectively joining an observational study because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not yet authorized for general use anywhere in the world.
Ramaphosa was broadcast live getting the shot at a district hospital in Khayelitsha, a poor Cape Town township, as part of the government's campaign to convince its 60 million people that the J&J vaccine is safe.
Ramaphosa took off his suit jacket and rolled up his left sleeve for the jab.
“Can I close my eyes?” he joked as he was injected.
Observers applauded after the shot was administered.
A nurse was announced as the first person in South Africa to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when she was injected at the hospital shortly before Ramaphosa.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize also received a vaccination at the Khayelitsha hospital on Wednesday.
South Africa is by far the worst-affected country in Africa in terms of coronavirus caseload, with nearly 1.5 million reported infections including more than 48,000 deaths, representing 41% of all the cases reported by the continent's 54 countries.
Its first batch of 80,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrived late Tuesday night after the country decided to switch from the AstraZeneca vaccine at the last moment. A small study had showed that AstraZeneca was not as effective as hoped against the coronavirus variant that is now dominant in South Africa.
The J&J doses are earmarked for front-line health workers in the first phase of South Africa’s rollout, and Ramaphosa and Mkhize were given special dispensation to receive vaccines in the first hours of the drive.
“I must say that at first I was a bit terrified of this long needle that was going to be embedded in my arm, but it happened so quickly and so easily,” Ramaphosa said. “This day marks a milestone for South Africa. Finally, the vaccines are here, and they are being administered.
“I’d like to invite South Africans to take this up so that we can all be safe and we can all be healthy.”
The J&J vaccines will be given as an observational study, in which no placebo shots will be given and the health and future infections of all participants will be tracked, say health experts. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is authorized for tests by South Africa's regulatory body.
“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been shown in extensive trials to be safe and efficacious and will protect our health care workers from illness and death from COVID-19,” Ramaphosa said in an earlier statement. “To demonstrate our confidence in this vaccine and help allay any fears that people may have, the Minister of Health and I will join the first health care workers to receive the vaccine in Khayelitsha.”
Five health care workers received vaccines before Ramaphosa, he said.
At least 380,000 health workers have registered online to receive the shots as part of the drive to vaccinate the country's 1.25 million health care workers. South Africa is expected to receive an additional 500,000 doses of the J&J vaccine within the next four weeks.
The J&J vaccine was shown by a large international clinical trial to be effective in offering protection from the variant in South Africa. Early results from that trial showed it had 57% efficacy against moderate to severe cases of COVID-19 caused by the variant in South Africa, and a higher efficacy against severe illness and hospitalization.
South Africa has set up 20 vaccination centers in its nine provinces, with 164 vaccinators inoculating approximately 48 people per day, according to authorities. The country had planned to vaccinate at least 67% of the population, about 40 million people, by the end of 2021 but that initial plan might now be under pressure because of the late switch from AstraZeneca to J&J.
South Africa had planned to roll out around 1 million AstraZeneca doses in its first phase of vaccinations.
Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.