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Schoub heads government advisory team on COVID-19 vaccine

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The South African Jewish community’s own Professor Barry Schoub has been selected to chair the most recently created Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on COVID-19.

The appointment was made by Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and announced in a COVID-19 update released by the department of health on Monday, 14 September.

Along with eight other leading experts, Schoub has been tasked with advising the government on vaccine-related matters to ensure that decision makers remain abreast of all critical developments internationally.

“The idea of a committee is to create coherent strategies for advising government on the procurement and equitable distribution of vaccines when they become available,” Schoub told the SA Jewish Report on Tuesday.

“Only a limited supply will initially be available when the vaccine is found, and we need strategies for how South Africa will go about acquiring and distributing it locally.”

A retired expert in vaccinology and virology, Schoub has already played a significant role in combatting the pandemic to date, advising the office of the chief rabbi and shuls on matters related to COVID-19, alongside Netcare Chief Executive Dr Richard Friedland and emergency medicine specialist Professor Efraim Kramer.

Schoub said he was asked to head up the newly created MAC at the end of August, reporting to Mkhize and other senior officials on developments concerning a vaccine.

“The advisory committee really began working two weeks ago,” he said. “It consists of experts in different fields, including immunologists, epidemiologists, ethicists, and others who will lend their professional skills to the task at hand.”

He said the committee had already held several meetings, and had drafted an advisory to the government. He also made a presentation to South Africa’s National Coronavirus Command Council earlier this week illustrating various vaccine-related issues to senior cabinet members.

“Right now, our job is to advise the government on various procurement options and engage in discussions with different manufacturers,” he said.

“Our other responsibility is to prepare local filling and distribution capacity with the facility in Cape Town called Biovac. Finally, we need to create a procurement mechanism through the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative, aimed at ensuring equitable distribution of the vaccine across the globe.

“At present, wealthy countries are stampeding to put in orders for vaccines, leaving others in the lurch,” Schoub said. “A proper procurement mechanism will ensure the procurement of vaccines for certain middle and lower-income countries.”

Much of the strategy is preliminary at this point owing to the lack of any vaccine on the market. Although the situation is unusual, Schoub believes that the early planning of an effective strategy is crucial to ensure that no country is left behind.

“It’s a very complex procedure that needs a lot of advanced planning. This isn’t like typical ordering from a store that already has stock. We need to take a lot of candidate vaccines into careful consideration, examining their efficacy, safety, and appropriateness for South Africa, including an assessment of their storage, stability, ethical considerations, and the like.”

Schoub stresses that the committee can offer only advice to the government, saying that the group is essentially made up of individual experts who are looking at various issues and offering their opinion.

“Many vaccines are in trial stages right now,” he said. “So we’ll need to evaluate the data very carefully before anything is put out to the population in general. This is our chief challenge. From there, we’ll need to determine adequate dosage, actual local distribution, and the prioritising of certain groups for initial rollout.

“The committee is already active, negotiating with manufacturers and planning every step that will be needed to get the vaccine out in South Africa,” he said.

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