Experts warn South Africa is far off in reaching herd immunity against coronavirus

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The emergence of the deadly Delta variant in South Africa has meant that the country is much further away from reaching herd immunity. That’s according to the head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), Dr Melinda Suchard.

South Africa initially intended to vaccinate 66% of the population in order to achieve population immunity against COVID-19. However, with the slow pace of government’s vaccination programme coupled with the deadly Delta variant, the percent is now much higher.

As of last week, 7.25 million people received vaccinations, of which only four million are fully vaccinated.

The herd immunity threshold is a description of the number of people who, in the population, need to be immune in order for the virus to stop replicating fast and does not cause increasing numbers of coronavirus cases.

Many scientists are currently questioning if South Africa will ever reach population herd immunity, especially with the deadly Delta variant.

The country’s immunisation drive has faced a number of hurdles, including news that AstraZeneca’s vaccine is mostly ineffective against the Beta. The vaccinations programme was also halted twice, when SAHPRA investigated blood clots linked to the J&J shot and during violent riots in KwaZulu-Natal.

Dr Suchard says South Africa now needs a high level of vaccine coverage to contain the spread of the virus.

“We are very far much off from achieving herd immunity. The R0 is how many people usually catch COVID-19 from one case. The value does depend on the strain. Initially, we though that R0 value was between two and three. So, the initial aim was to vaccinate about 66% of the population. With the Delta variant, the R0 is higher, meaning someone with the delta variant tends to give it to five or six individuals. The herd immunity threshold would then be 80%. So, we would now need a higher level of coverage in the country if we were to rely on herd immunity to say outbreaks would not spread.”

Suchard says the Coronvirus will never fully disappear. However, with increased vaccinations, death and hospitalisation will be prevented in the years to come.

She says the washing of hands, sanitising, and social distancing should become part of our daily lives.

“It’s very likely that the virus is going to become part of viruses that circulate and make people ill, but not at epidemic levels. Viruses like influenza; it’s relatively few people every year. It’s very likely that it’s going to happen to SARS COV-2. It will continue to circulate. There will always be some people catching it in any season, but those that are vaccinated will not suffer from sever illness or death. SARS COV-2 is going to be with us for a long time … years.”

While some scientists believe Herd Immunity is not within reach for South Africa in the near future, The South African Medical Research Council’s Professor, Ameena Goga says South Africa has already built small pockets of immunity in some provinces.

“I think we have been building herd immunity and we continue to do that as we move forward. Some of the data from some of the districts and provinces are testament to that. It has taken some districts and provinces much longer to reach peaks in the third wave and we think that’s in part due to pockets of herd immunity that has already developed in some of our communities. We have had some surveys that show antibody prevalence sitting at between 30 and 40% and we need to continue to generate that data.”

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) remains disappointed that South Africa may not reach Herd Immunity.

Denosa’s Bongani Mazibuko says efforts need to be ramped up to encourage higher levels of vaccination.

“The vaccination plan that we have is but a desktop exercise. The department should be robustly going out, especially on social media, refuting the message of the anti-vaxxers. When health workers were also reluctant to vaccinate, we had to get information and share that with the nurses and that is when the uptake was increased.”

Government has aimed to vaccinate between 70 and 90% of the country’s adult population by the end of the year, a target many believe is unreachable.

Latest COVID-19 statistics in South Africa:





Vaccine hesitance increasing in some areas of South Africa