DM168 Analysis

Covid-19: The vaccine sums don’t add up

Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize visits Clairwood Hospital ahead of the expected peak in the Province on August 06, 2020 in Durban, South Africa. According to a media release, the Minister will visit a few COVID-19 facilities across the province and sit down with Provincial and District management in an attempt to better understand challenges faced by the province. (Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

The South African government is adamant that it must vaccinate 67% of the population to achieve herd immunity – roughly 40 million people. Just one problem – there aren’t enough adults in the country, and the vaccines haven’t been tested on children.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize has repeatedly said that the Covid-19 vaccine will not be mandatory.

But in order to reach the minimum threshold required for herd immunity, the reality is that every adult in the country will have to be vaccinated – and some teenagers too.

A demographer who did not wish to be named in this context told DM168 that the total adult population of South Africa – in other words, those over 18 years of age – was roughly 39,2 million. The government needs to vaccinate about 40 million people in order to break the cycle of Covid-19 transmission.

The Department of Health confirmed that 40 million was the figure it was aiming to vaccinate. Spokesperson Lwazi Manzi told DM168 that 67% of the population needed to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. This worked out to about 40 million people to vaccinate.

In the presentation Minister Mkhize gave to Parliament last week on the vaccine rollout, it specifies that vaccinating children is “currently not recommended”.

But with the total adult population of South Africa not reaching the 40 million mark, while potentially millions of those adults refuse to be vaccinated, the question that arises is: who will be vaccinated to make up the missing numbers?

“None of the vaccines is currently authorised for children,” Wits professor of vaccinology Shabir Madhi told DM168. “Vaccine studies on children are currently starting and will only be available in a few months. It is unlikely that any countries will be targeting children for vaccination.”

Madhi says he has been trying to draw attention to the vaccination number discrepancy in vain.

“I have been saying the same thing: that you would have to vaccinate 110% of South Africa’s adult population [to reach herd immunity]. It is simply never going to materialise.”

Although South Africans are being reassured that they can opt out of the vaccine, this would seem impossible in terms of the numbers required.

That this is likely to become a major issue is evident from the growing volume of local anti-vaxxers: a diverse group made up of religious Christians and Muslims, QAnon followers and conspiracy theorists, radical Africanists and those who simply do not trust the government.

On anti-vaxxer groups on social media monitored by DM168, certain false ideas about the Covid-19 vaccine are repeatedly spread: that the vaccine is the brainchild of Bill Gates and is intended to kill off Africans; that the vaccine is being used to sterilise men without permission; that the vaccine can genetically modify DNA; and that the versions of the vaccine being distributed in the developing world will be fatally different from those administered in the West.

A general view of a vaccine on December 11, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. According to media reports, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) has announced that it intends to fast track the regulatory approval for Covid-19 vaccines and expects the first applications before end of December 2020. (Photo by Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)

Multiple different polls have now found that roughly half of South Africans claim they will refuse to take the vaccine. This week, a survey of 3,000 people by gig technology company M4Jam revealed that only 38% said they were willing to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Head of the South African Vaccination & Immunisation Centre, Professor Rose Burnett, told DM168 that there was evidence to the effect that vaccine scepticism had been growing locally over the past few years in tandem with the growth of social media. Burnett stressed, however, that in general terms, “the vast majority of South African parents from poor communities really value vaccination very highly, and want their children to be vaccinated”.

A matter of increasing concern to health experts has been the unhelpful involvement of local politicians in the Covid-19 vaccine debate.

The Pan Africanist Congress this week released a statement claiming that the vaccines have been developed too hastily to be safe, and suggesting that “our scepticism about vaccines reflects the resounding instinct of most, if not all, Africans”.

This is a common complaint. “From the outside it may seem that [scientists] have rushed the job [of vaccine development], but the public doesn’t really appreciate the amount of work going into clinical trials,” says Professor Madhi. “The studies have been large enough to pick up even uncommon side effects.”

Politicians from the African Christian Democratic Party, National Freedom Party and United Democratic Movement, meanwhile, have tweeted endorsements of bogus immune cures and the controversial drug Ivermectin. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema has taken a strong pro-vaccine stance, however, lashing out at “unscientific and illogical” criticism of the vaccine at a press conference on Thursday.

“Vaccines have played a critical role in eradicating disease throughout the history of humanity,” Malema said, later adding: “We will never win this war [on] corona if we are going to denounce science.” While he spoke, a stream of EFF supporters on the group’s Facebook page expressed disappointment with Malema for speaking out in favour of the vaccine.

If anywhere near the number of people targeted by health authorities are to agree to be vaccinated, it is clear that a massive and rapid education campaign about the vaccine will have to be rolled out as soon as possible.

Health spokesperson Manzi told DM168 that the department had begun meetings with traditional leaders, unions, civil society and community leaders “to empower them with knowledge to impart [to] and empower the people”.

In addition, “all communication channels will be employed by ourselves as government to communicate directly with the people”.

Professor Burnett said the most important step authorities could take may be building public trust in government, which “right now is probably the lowest it has been since the era of Aids denialism”. If the public trusts the government, people are more likely to trust the vaccines they are offered, Burnett suggests.

Health experts canvassed by DM168 this week were adamant that making the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory was a bad idea.

The government’s chief Covid-19 adviser, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, described himself as “optimistic” that the target coverage could be reached without making it compulsory.

“Making it compulsory may end up fuelling anti-vaccine sentiment and conspiracy theories,” Abdool Karim said – but he stressed that he also supported “compulsory targeted vaccination” in regard to outbreaks in contained areas.

“If there is an outbreak of the virus in an elderly care facility or in a congregate institution, then the state must be able to go into those places and vaccinate everyone quickly to contain the epidemic – as even small numbers of unvaccinated individuals could have an impact on future spread and mortality,” Abdool Karim said.

In such a situation, he said that the Health Act would enable the government to act in the interest of public health and to vaccinate everyone at risk. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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All Comments 11

  • It is not surprising the sums do not add up to any rational person. But then the Govt. / ANC are not rational, the ANC is just looking for ways to siphon off money. Simple – use big numbers to fool people. Very sad…..

  • Dear Editor – It is time to straighten your political direction. Rebecca Davis writes “unhelpful involvement of local politicians in the Covid-19 vaccine debate.” This in itself is ok, but she then mentions a few political parties. That is also ok. BUT she never mentioned the DA views on this matter! The country’s biggest opposition party was not mentioned! Is the EFF more important than the DA to Davis? Is she always biased against the DA? Is the Daily Maverick always biased against the DA? Please come out, in print, and give your stand on the DA!

  • Population dynamics is fluid, and population stats are hard and fast numbers applied at a certain point in time. At our last population count in 2019, we had 20m+ youth (15-34) and 21m (34 and above). Take out the 15 and 16 year olds, and assume the 17 year olds have turned 18 by the time we have the vaccine and you are at the 40m mark so why the hysteria? Plus I assume that they would rather have more vaccines available than less to accommodate for discrepancies in population counting. Un-named sources? Quoting research from obscure companies like M4Jam? This story doesn’t seem balanced.

  • Reading “Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture”, “Republic of Gupta”, “Preditor Politics: Mabuza, Fred Daniel and the Great Land Scam”, “Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma Stole South Africa”, “Blessed by Bosasa”, “The Presidents Keeper” and a host of other scandalous books exposing corruption on the grandest scale, and “state capture” one must wonder why hardly any of the authors of these books have never been challenger in a court of law?

    Could it be that these chronicles are factual? Surely the subjects of the books if not factual would have challenged the authors either by litigation or the public domain in the press, but not so which leaves the readers to believe that these are true accounts of what has become the ‘norm’ amongst the ruling elite of South Africa, our esteemed leaders. Hardly a day goes by that another scandal by a high-ranking ANC cadre makes the headlines and one simply need listen to the evidence being led by countless well-connected cadres at the Zondo Commission on State Capture to understand the true extent of what is happening in the country.

    But there is light at the end of the tunnel – indeed the ANC has an esteemed committee called the “ANC Integrity Commission” and we see just how effective the commission is when the former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede has been given a free pass, despite being charged for corruption has been rewarded by a prominent position in the provincial government. Of course we have all read about Ace Magashule’s charges and court appearance but neither have stepped down as the integrity commission ruled recently. And why should they? After all “some animals are more equal than others” wrote George Orwell. And this mantra certainly belongs to the ruling ANC. Nothing new as we well remember Shabir Shaik , Tony Yengeni and honestly far too many to mention. Cadre’s all accused of misconduct and worse.

    Of course, the awarding of dodgy tenders for the supply of Personal Protection Equipment during the pandemic is another accolade to add to the ANC’s “integrity” accomplishments, but the most important achievement, not of their own doing, is that there is such an incipit and weak opposition that allows the governing elite a blank cheque to do what it likes, when it likes and how it likes.

    A stranger to the country must question just how they get away with all this, it’s simple, when their propaganda machine convinces the rural masses that the measly grants they get to sustain their livelihood comes for the ANC and not the government the ANC knows that they will remain in power until the second coming. Keeping the poor masses on the brink of starvation, denying them a “better life for all”, denying decent schooling and healthcare and keeping “the people” where they are with little hope of that elusive “better life” is their ticket to suck the country dry and carry on thieving for their own gratification and indulgence without any remorse as to the plight of the masses the status quo will continue forever.

    The creation of a comfortable middle class is their biggest enemy and thus the dismal education policy of the ANC is purposely perpetuated to lower schooling standards and only open opportunity to those exceptional few who through sheer extraordinary ability can rise above the mediocrity and sub-standard education policies of the ruling elite. A page out of Marie Antionette’s book of letting them eat cake if no bread is available.

    An alarming thought, no frightening one is that only one man stands between the likes of a D.D.Mabuza, or Ace Magashule and their ilk becoming president of the country, and if we thought that Zuma was bad, he will look like an angel compared the these two. A thought to ghastly to consider but something so easily possible given the forces trying to dislodge the current president, not to suppose that our current president is squeaky clean.

    Given all the maleficence experience to date, which in itself beggars believe, along comes the Covid19 pandemic and what a gift to the ruling scoundrels giving them carte blanch to impose total control over their subjects. Control such as not being allowed to purchase open toe shoes! Or hot prepared food, or a list of other bizarre items conjured up by some demented minister. Of course the ban on cigarette sales really made sense but those “rules” were not intended to make any sense they were imposed to exert total control over a population without any logic. If anyone believes that these controls will ever be relaxed, think again.

    Nothing new in South Africa as the previous regime did just that – controlled every aspect of life without the people ever realising until too late. The ANC have now an even more powerful tool at their disposal – the Covid19 vaccination that poorer countries such as Colombia, Tunisia, Algeria and a host more have not only secured supplies of the various vaccines available but in fact are currently rolling out their distribution and inoculation vast swaths of their population. Where is the South African strategy of combating the pandemic? After missing two critical advance payment to secure such supplies they firstly try to pull the wool over our eyes and tell us that the vaccines need to be tried and tested by our own authorities – really when the U.K, U.S. and other highly sophisticated countries have green lighted the vaccines. Then do an about turn within 24 hours when a number of scientist attested to the efficacy of the vaccines, then fumbled with hardly a convincing argument about committing deposits and other half backed excuses.

    There can only be two cogent reasons for the ANC not committing all resources in obtaining the necessary life-saving drugs:

    While the ANC exerts total control via their State of Disaster and Disaster Management Act which gives them the power to renew the Act without parliament approval enables them to control every aspect of civil live from what kind of food they are allowed to purchase to the type of sandal you are allowed to wear. Total control over the population gives unchecked power to do what they like, and haven’t we seen examples of this.

    The second and very plausible reason being that negotiating with the ethical manufactures of the Covid19 vaccines no pharmaceutical company were prepared to be party to the corrupt practices of the ANC officials, something so obvious and blatant in the awarding of PPE tenders not that long ago. The ANC cadres saw no personal benefit in securing the vaccines that could prevent the infection and death rate of the population and therefore they saw no urgency in securing the life -saving drugs.

  • This is one of the silliest articles on DM ever. Really, we all know that maths is not the strong point of politicians, least of all the ANC leaders. But to write an article on it, publish it in a free sheet “newspaper”, and then republish it 24 hours later online as a major article on DM with the intriguing headline: “Covid 19: The vaccine sums don’t add up”, real is an insult to a large percentage of DM readers. Unless DM assume that the majority of DM readers are plain stupid.

  • The other math that needs explaining is the 20.6 billion budget. 40m people is 80m doses at 54 is call it 4.5b. 6300 new fulltime vaccinators for two years at R200k each another 2.5b. Add say 10% for consumables and we are at call it 8b. Then, the deal is private medical aids will pay for their member plus one public. With 10m private medical aids 20m people or half are paid by medical aids so dial back the budget by half or R4b. What on earth is the other R16b for exactly?

  • Ms Davis It appears that there are good, sound reasons to be cautious of the vaccine side effects, or after-effects. Just read the articles in DM for starters ! Your depiction of anti vaxxers as “a diverse group made up of religious Christians and Muslims, QAnon followers and conspiracy theorists, radical Africanists and those who simply do not trust the government” seems dismissive of the real hard questions that seek honest answers. To lump people with valid reason to be cautious with radical groups and dismiss responsible citizenry as conspiracy theorists is not conductive to a healthy democratic society. We need to welcome diverse opinions and contextualise them perhaps, but not dismiss them.

    • Yep! Instead of the questions asked regarding the side-effects etc. being answered, people’s democratic rights are being ridiculed. Nobody can trust this anc government for anything. Look what happened over the last 10 to 15 years – we are a bankrupt banana republic.

  • The author claims: ‘Multiple different polls have now found that roughly half of South Africans claim they will refuse to take the vaccine.’ Please would she provide a list of the ‘multiple different polls’? Direct message me if you prefer Rebecca.

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