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When it comes to vaccines, it’s better to stick to the facts

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Letters/Discussion Forums

The Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines (VMAC) as well as the two other MACs are concerned about the extent of vaccine hesitancy in the country.

A recent survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council found that only 52.3% of a cross-section of urbanised and rural populations were planning to be vaccinated – possibly one of the lowest vaccine acceptancy rates in the world. The success of the COVID-19 vaccine programme is critically dependent on public trust and public partnership in what is essentially a novel public health programme – the mass rollout of a new vaccine for adults.

Undermining the programme by uninformed “pseudo-activist” grandstanding can only further damage the fragile public confidence about COVID-19 vaccines. One need only look back in recent history to see the damage wrought by uninformed, wannabe COVID-19 “experts” such as former United States President Donald Trump.

The plea is certainly not to stifle criticism of the government or the vaccine programme. In fact, the VMAC itself has, on a number of occasions, criticised various aspects of government policy. For example, take the Covax deposit issue, which is in the public domain under earlier advisories published on the health department’s website.

The VMAC was established as an independent scientific think tank of top national experts, as well as a panel of international experts, in the field of COVID-19-related vaccine issues. Its members serve in a voluntary capacity, function completely independently of the government, and declare no conflicts of interest. Its purpose is exclusively to provide expert, evidence-based, scientific guidance for the government to plan and execute its vaccine programme.

Three items in the last issue of the SA Jewish Report sanctimoniously adopt a moral stance of the right to speak out against the government. Few reasonable people would disagree with this. But criticism, to be of any value, must be based on authentic science and scientific facts. As the late senator, Daniel Moynihan, so wisely quipped, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you aren’t entitled to your own facts.”

On 3 July, I wrote a letter to the chief rabbi informing him of my resignation from his informal medical advisory body. My reason was that it would “be totally inappropriate for me to be recognised as a medical adviser to your office”. This followed his submission to Business Day on 29 June of an opinion piece which was replete with misinformation and, in my view, was also distasteful in the extreme. These were repeated in his interview responses in the last issue of the SA Jewish Report.

For example, what’s glaringly omitted in any of his submissions is the pivotal role that the B.1.351 (Beta) variant played in the vaccine strategy of the country. He went on to say that evidence was available that the AstraZeneca vaccine would have prevented serious illness, hospitalisation, and death. No such evidence exists, only vague speculation by some. He laments the fact that so many middle-income countries are so far ahead of South Africa, but omits the inconvenient truth that vaccines widely unregistered at the time – from China and Russia – were used, vaccines which had no evidence of activity against the Beta variant.

The chief rabbi’s piece was drawn to my attention, inter alia, by a member of my VMAC. As chairperson of the VMAC, I was unfortunately compelled, in the public interest, to correct at least some of the glaring items of misinformation. It certainly was unfortunate, as the very last thing I wanted was to be involved in a vitriolic to-and-fro correspondence duel with uninformed journalists pursuing their own narratives.

As far as the Jewish community is concerned, I continue to cherish the responsibility that the community has given to me to advise it on COVID-19. I have, for more than a year and a half, willingly, and in fact feel privileged to have been able to volunteer my services and professional and scientific knowledge. I have provided scientifically based advice on COVID-19 to schools, shuls, organisations and, of course, to many individuals who have contacted me.

As chairperson of the VMAC, a member of the general MAC on COVID-19, and a number of other scientific forums, I’m fortunately in a position to provide to the community updated scientific information and data on COVID-19 to clearly explain the facts and sort them out from the plethora of background noise often emanating from the media and unqualified “experts”.

I will be using the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Facebook page every Wednesday at 12:00 to give a weekly update on COVID-19. It can be accessed at https://www.facebook.com/SAJBD

  • Barry Schoub is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. This article is written in his private capacity. He’s not a member of the health department, and receives no remuneration for his advisory services to the department. He reports no conflicts of interest.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Desiree Levin

    Jul 22, 2021 at 7:27 pm

    Should one have an antigen blood test prior to considering the current vaccination. How long after having been diagnosed with ‘CoVid 19’ should one wait before being vaccinated.

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Tribute to a man who embodies Judaism at its best

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As the Torah observant manager of a busy food establishment and as a member of the Jewish community, I wish to give thanks and recognition to a pillar of righteousness.

Rabbi Yossi Baumgarten joined the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) kashrut department more than 40 years ago, and gave the prime of his life to serve the community.

No factory was too far. No mashgiach question was turned away, even if called at 01:00.

Baumgarten addressed kashrut matters with integrity and honesty, and with a zest and energy that motivated and inspired all those who had the privilege and honour to work with him.

I once had the privilege of going on a trip with Baumgarten. The man is utter Judaism. From the way he treats others, to the way he ties his shoes and walks. His greatness is in his kindness, humility, and truthfulness.

The UOS kashrut department has been internationally recognised for decades as a result of the sterling input of Baumgarten, and this is evident by the many calls and messages he would field throughout the day from people all over the world. Whether it be a call from the Orthodox Union or the OK or Star K certification agencies, or a mashgiach or local housewife, the Jewish local community and the kosher world at large owe Baumgarten a debt of gratitude.

On behalf of the Mashgiach Association, we wish Baumgarten much strength and success in all his future endeavours.

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Deafening silence about Afghanistan, hue and cry about Israel

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Tali Feinberg’s excellent piece in the SA Jewish Report (2 September) titled Africa4Palestine Compares Israel to Nazi Germany, offers sufficient expert academic opinion to totally discredit this narrative that is the backbone of the organisation’s campaign. That crusade together with the continuous use of the apartheid canard has one goal only: the total destruction and delegitimisation of Israel. Both apartheid and Nazi myths carry powerful emotive connotations.

While these falsehoods are somewhat over-played and over-used, Israel’s defensive operations are what elevates the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions organisation’s attack to a crescendo. Just months ago, the world erupted in a show of anger, with hordes filling the streets of capital cities, admonishing only Israel during a conflict with the Hamas terror group.

Contrast that to the recent get together in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad poured congratulations on the Taliban for the takeover of Afghanistan and broke bread together. These Sunni terror groups, including Al-Qaeda, share an ideology of gender violence and misogyny, and support each other in multiple ways. Of course, the Taliban’s unmentionable barbaric treatment of women has been well documented and condemned by most of the world.

Those throngs of protesters voicing thunderous support for Hamas, the blood brothers of the Taliban, now manifest a deafening silence. Where is “the squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib? Not forgetting Jewish college students on the left, who all had much to say in their condemnation of the only country in the region able to stand up to terrorism of this kind.

Are those protesters oblivious to the plight of Afghan girls and women?

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Letters/Discussion Forums

US left’s outrage over Kabul bombing smacks of hypocrisy

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As the deadline for the evacuation of those desperate to flee the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan approaches, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) detonated two deadly suicide explosions in the airport precinct of Kabul, killing more than 60 civilians together with 13 United States (US) military personnel.

This tragedy as the events in Afghanistan unfold bought home the reality of having to contend with these types of contemptable and despicable atrocities that aren’t foreign to the Middle East – not to forget where suicide bombing originated more than 20 years ago.

The untimely deaths of the 13 US servicemen has had a profound effect on the psyche of the American public, whose outrage is expressed in most prominent press reports, and is a stark reminder of the dangers of foreign assistance to unstable areas around the world.

Why should American boys die while defending freedom and democracy, is a question on everybody’s lips.

Most Americans, from Democratic liberals to the Republicans, are outraged and incensed – about the only time that the two agree on anything. Even those high-profile celebrities, with the likes of “The Squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. Not to forget Trevor Noah and the Hadid girls, and of course, the left Jewish college students, who all had much to say in their condemnation of the only country in the region able to stand up to terrorism of this kind.

Just a short while back, these good folk were singing the praises of another organisation, the actual founders and inventors of suicide attacks, in fact showing no remorse whatsoever that such attacks are perpetrated against other democracies. In those cases, the perpetrators are the heroes, and the victims condemned by this coterie. Would this set be accused of hypocrisy? Surely not, given the outrage demonstrated today in the US.

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