Not one of the over 600 patients who took part in the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine trial in Limpopo has died or experienced serious Covid-19 symptoms since it began in October last year.
This has been a symbol of hope for community members who say they have watched their vulnerable counterparts perish from the disease. They want the vaccine roll-out programme to prioritise remote rural towns such as Moutse, outside Groblersdal, Limpopo.
The trial was conducted by Ndlovu Care Group, one of the first South African organisations involved in South Africa’s initial anti-retroviral (ARV) drug trials at the start of the HIV pandemic in the 1990s.
The vaccine had an 85% success rate in preventing severe Covid-19 symptoms on a group ranging from elderly to middle-aged patients. The organisation’s CEO, Hugo Templeman, said this vaccine trial’s success was particularly significant for South Africa. This is because the planned local manufacturing of the drug in the Eastern Cape meant it would likely be among the most accessible.
Gontse*, a 52-year-old father of five says before the vaccine trial and the NGO’s education drive in the Moutse area and surrounds, fear about vaccine was as rampant as fear of the pandemic itself.
The retrenched construction worker wants his community to see him and others who took part in the trial as a beacon of hope and a sign that the vaccine is necessary to save lives. He describes his experience and how his body feels afterwards as “excellent”, indicating he did not feel any adverse effects.
“I went there because no one around me wanted to do the trial and this disease was killing us so I thought if I am doing it, then I will be doing something for my community and for South Africa,” said Gontse*. “I want people not to fear the vaccine and to know that this vaccine is going to help us, because even when we were younger we used to get vaccinated for things like measles and flu. I also have five children and I want them to be able to go to school.”
Templeman has vowed that his NGO would fight for price exclusivity and accessibility for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when manufacturing begins this year in Nelson Mandela Bay.
“It s significant if you see it in light of South Africa and the situation we are in because the Johnson & Johnson trial showed that not one patient has died. It prevented 85% of people getting severe Covid-19 disease symptoms and 75% moderate disease symptoms. So the trial was a tremendous success. We are delighted for the choice of government to rollout this vaccine.”
Ndlovu was one of 26 research centres doing Covid-19 trials in the country on around 6500 patients. With 602 patients, the NGO had one of the biggest trials in the country, Templeman says. The trial targeted people above the age of 18, but mostly on those in the most vulnerable age group, those over 60 years old.
Another patient who took part in the trial was head of the Bantwane Traditional Council, Silas Mathebe. As a traditional leader in the community, his duties placed him in the front lines of engagement with families affected by Covid-19. This made him painfully aware of the risk of infection he bore every time duty called. He and his wife Miriam, 59, took part in the trial despite the voiced fears of his children and extended family.
“As a traditional council leader, I sometimes found myself between a rock and a hard place because on a daily basis, I have people coming here to assist them with documents to travel to other provinces and other things. I am sometimes seeing 20 people a day and so I thought my risk of contracting the virus is so much that I don’t see myself surviving much longer,” he said.
According to Mathebe, none of the patients he knew who were on the trial, ranging from over 60 year olds to those in their late 30s, experienced any complications.
“I am glad to know that the vaccine trial is a success and I hope that our community becomes one of the priorities because the disease has really affected us. At some point people were reporting 3 or 4 deaths to me daily.”