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Your Covid-19 questions answered

If the vaccine is safe, why was it developed in such a short space of time?

More than 12-million Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in South Africa, but many people are still hesitant to take the jab.
More than 12-million Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in South Africa, but many people are still hesitant to take the jab.
Image: REUTERS/ Jose Luis Gonzalez

The Covid-19 vaccine is safe to use and was not developed “overnight”, as is widely claimed by those hesitant to get the jab.

Wits University professor of vaccinology Dr Shabir Madhi says researchers did not start from scratch when producing the vaccine against Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, as they had existing research on other coronaviruses that were detected years earlier. 

The South African government is rolling out the Pfizer and J&J vaccines for all adults and recently reached a milestone of 12-million people vaccinated. However, the government is still confronted with the challenge of vaccine hesitancy sparked by, among other concerns, questions about how “quickly” the vaccine was developed.

Vaccine hesitancy has become a big issue in South Africa. The Gauteng government, in the past few weeks, launched pop-up mobile vaccination sites in its efforts to get more residents jabbed.

Premier David Makhura said the Gauteng government has also conducted door-to-door visits, explaining how the vaccine works and busting myths about it. 

Madhi said the technology used to produce the vaccines is the same as that used in the early 2000s to develop a vaccine against one of the coronaviruses detected at the time; Sars-CoV-1.

“In 2002 there was a MERS Coronavirus and the same technology was being used to develop the vaccines against those viruses. What ended up happening was the pandemic burnt out. We didn't need vaccines for those viruses, though there is still work ongoing.

“The University of Oxford's technology is very adaptable. It can be changed quickly and adapted for a new pathogen. Though it appears this vaccine was developed overnight, the work it took to get this right was because of the work of the past 10-20 years,” he said. 

Madhi said another contributing factor in the fast production of the vaccine was the availability of funding for pharmaceutical companies from governments globally.

He said this is usually a factor that influences how quickly vaccines are produced.

“The companies usually take on all the risks to develop the vaccine. They were very cautious and wanted certainty that the vaccine would work from one phase to the last,” said Madhi.

The risk is more a financial one, rather than the effectiveness of the vaccine.

“Many governments provided the funds and removed the risk from companies and that allowed them to work much faster and take more risk,” he said.