Covid-19: If you want to be fully vaccinated with the Pfizer jab by Christmas, now’s your chance

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  • SA experts are concerned about a fourth Covid-19 wave that could start as early as December 2021.
  • With Christmas right around the corner, now's the time to get vaccinated – if you haven't already.
  • If you're getting the Pfizer vaccine, you'll only be fully protected two weeks after your second shot.

Christmas is less than 10 weeks away, and if you want to be fully vaccinated with the two-dose Pfizer vaccine by then to protect yourself and those around you, then this week is your last chance to do so.

Last year, festivities and holiday celebrations had to be curtailed due to restrictions and high case numbers, but the current availability of vaccines has made it possible for life to slowly return to normal.

Health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emphasise that vaccination is our key to safe holiday gatherings, which include Christmas. 

In South Africa, the two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, named Comirnaty, are given 42 days (six weeks) apart. This means that getting your first dose by 30 October will put you on schedule to receive your second dose by 11 December.

However, as noted by the CDC, it typically takes two weeks after you are fully vaccinated for your body to build protection (immunity) against SARS-CoV-2, so complete protection will only kick in around 22–25 December – just in time for Christmas.

Reporting by Business Insider notes that around 70% of the vaccine doses administered in South Africa are Comirnaty, with the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine prioritised for use in rural areas. 

How much protection does the first dose offer?

Getting both doses of the Comirnaty vaccine offers over 90% protection against the most severe effects of Covid-19, including hospitalisation and death. 

The first dose doesn’t offer high protection – data from the UK showed that Comirnaty's first dose offered around 30% protection against symptomatic infection. This point was echoed by Professor Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Prof Mahdi recently told Health24 that a single dose of Comirnaty's vaccine protects only modestly against infection and mild Covid, especially with the highly infectious Delta variant, but that it still works quite well in protecting against severe disease. Two doses, however, provide the best immunity as the second one reinforces the body’s immune response.

What about the J&J vaccine?

The J&J vaccine requires only one dose. If you receive this vaccine, you are considered fully vaccinated (protected) two weeks after your shot. 

Protecting yourself as well as others

Vaccination not only protects the individual, but also those around them. Evidence indicates that vaccinated individuals are less likely to transmit the virus.

While a vaccinated person may have the same viral load (the amount of virus in a person’s body) as an unvaccinated person, the duration of viral shedding – when a virus is released from the infected host – and the type of symptoms the vaccinated individual displays are much less than in unvaccinated individuals, Madhi recently said. This has been seen with both the J&J and Comirnaty vaccines.

What if I’ve had a natural infection?

Calculations by Discovery Health indicated that 80% of South Africans may already have contracted the virus during the past three waves, and immunity derived through natural infection cannot be overlooked, Madhi stressed. 

“If you had a past infection and get a single dose of the vaccine, you'll get a tremendous immune response,” he said but added that this comes at a cost.

“People who want to gain immunity through natural infection do so at a risk of ending up in hospital, dying, and developing long Covid,” he added. 

Madhi also previously explained that natural infection induces a less predictable antibody response compared to vaccination. Natural immunity may also vary from person to person.

Predicted fourth wave

Local experts have stated that South Africa is likely to experience a fourth wave of Covid cases as early as December 2021, although its severity cannot be predicted. 

“I think it’s possibly going to be different but we don’t really know,” Professor Adrian Puren, Acting Executive Director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said in September.

The factors that need to be taken into account is that although South Africa has a large proportion of individuals that have experienced natural infection, and vaccine rollouts are in place, there is still a significant number of people that have not been exposed to the virus, highlighting the need for greater vaccination uptake.

“Vaccines do work. They are effective. It will happen that vaccinated individuals end up in the hospital wards, but not to the same extent as individuals who are unvaccinated,” said Puren. 

Vaccination uptake among older age groups

Madhi also expressed concern about the low vaccine uptake among the older age groups, who are at greatest risk of Covid-related severe illness or death. 

Earlier this month, stats revealed that about 50% of people between 50 and 59 years and around 60% of people above the age of 60 years have been vaccinated, but that figure needed to increase to roughly 85 to 90% of people above the age of 50, Madhi said.

“If we’re able to do that, even when we experience a resurgence, what won’t occur is an overwhelming of our healthcare facilities,” he explained.

The South African government aims to have given at least one dose of the vaccine to 35 million of its 60 million people by Christmas, acting director-general (DG) of the health department, Dr Nicholas Crisp, said in July this year.

As of 26 October 2021, just over 21.7 million doses of the vaccines had been administered in the country.

*For more Covid-19 research, science, and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

READ | Covid-19: Looking ahead to the next wave - experts discuss vaccines, variants and lockdowns

READ | Covid-19 vaccine now available to 12–17 age group – but will just one shot be effective?

READ | Covid-19 vaccine: Large study supports third Pfizer jab for immunocompromised

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