The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) says it is working with the Department of Health, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) and Johnson & Johnson to start next month with the rolling out of JnJ booster shots to healthcare workers who received their single dose under the Sisonke Programme earlier this year.

Both the South African Medical Association (SAMA) and the South African Private Practitioners Forum (SAPPF) have called on government to make booster shots for healthcare workers immediately available in the light of mounting evidence about the waning efficacy of the JnJ jab and warnings that South Africa is facing an impending 4th wave of the pandemic..

On Sunday, an FDA panel consisting of outside experts voted to support Johnson & Johnson’s application to offer a booster shot of its vaccine, recommending that all individuals who were vaccinated with the single-shot J&J vaccine get a second dose, regardless of their age or any underlying conditions. According to the US Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, Dr Antony Fauci, the JnJ should have been given as a two-dose vaccine from the start.

Speaking to eNCA, SAMRC President, Prof Glenda Gray expressed support for booster shots for HCWs, explaining that the decision to initially only offer a single dose was part of an emergency response based upon available data that showed the effectiveness of the vaccine to save lives and prevent COVID-related hospitalisations. She explained that if the country had to wait for the data on the second dose to become available, it would have delayed the emergency response by nine months.

“We know that the first single dose worked and provided healthcare workers and millions of people around the world with protection against severe illness and death. With the latest data indicating that a second dose may be necessary to provide ongoing protection, we are working with the DoH and SAHPRA to provide a boost strategy to HCWs in early November,” Prof Gray said, adding that they are looking at how government’s Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) could be adjusted for healthcare workers to register for a second dose.

In an earlier interview with MedBrief Africa, SAPPF Chairperson, Dr Philip Matley expressed concern about government’s delay in offering booster shots and indications of break-through infections and even deaths in HCWs who received the JnJ vaccine in the first phase of the vaccination drive.

SAMA Chairperson, Dr Angelique Coetzee said it was critical that booster shots be administered to all doctors and healthcare workers as a matter of routine, and as early as is needed.

“These are people who are literally on the frontline of a war, and who have made enormous sacrifices to assist others. It’s our duty, and the duty of authorities, to ensure these brave men and women receive the best possible protection they can, which is possible through authorising booster shots,” Dr Coetzee said.

She says the high effectiveness of reducing hospitalisations among those who have received second doses and booster shots will ensure the continued health of healthcare workers and reduce transmissions in health facilities. In addition, she says, booster shots will become more necessary as new variants of COVID-19 arise.

“Resources, both human and operational, are already stretched and the battles against COVID – especially during the first three waves – have exacted a further heavy toll. Doctors are emotionally strained, and we are still receiving information on burnout among many of our colleagues. Booster doses will go a long way to send a message to doctors that they are being supported, and that their efforts are being recognised,” notes Dr Coetzee.

In light of the fact that vaccines are in good supply, and that providing booster shots will not dent supply to those who need their first shots, Dr Coetzee says it’s now time to start prioritising the roll-out of boosters to all healthcare workers. She says that government should give healthcare workers the individual right to choose between the second dose of J&J or Pfizer.

“We still need to focus on getting as many South Africans vaccinated as possible and we will support those efforts. But vaccine supply is not constrained and some of those which are available must be given to the people who face this pandemic head-on every day without diverting anything from the public. We believe the scientific evidence strongly favours this approach,” says Dr Coetzee.