A joke, a jab: South Africa starts vaccinating with leader

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa receives a Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. Ramaphosa was among the first in his country to receive the vaccination to launch the inoculation drive in the country. (Gianluigi Guercia/Pool via AP)

JOHANNESBURG – Cracking a joke about his fear of needles, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday became one of the first people to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in the country that has by far the highest confirmed virus caseload in Africa.

“Can I close my eyes?” Ramaphosa bantered as a health worker injected him with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a live broadcast on South African television.

Staff at the district hospital in Khayelitsha, a poor township near Cape Town, applauded. Minutes later, Ramaphosa urged South Africa's 60 million people to have confidence in the vaccines despite a bumpy start to the inoculation campaign marked by a last-minute switch of vaccines.

The first phase of vaccinating the country's health care workers will now begin as an observational study because the J&J shots are not yet authorized for general use here or anywhere in the world.

“I must say that at first I was a bit terrified of this long needle that was going to be embedded in my arm, but it happened so quickly and so easily,” Ramaphosa said. “This day marks a milestone for South Africa. Finally, the vaccines are here, and they are being administered.

“I’d like to invite South Africans to take this up so that we can all be safe and we can all be healthy.”

Only a week ago, South Africa's minister of health announced the country would not roll out AstraZeneca vaccines after months of preparation because a small study showed they were not as effective against the variant that is now dominant in Africa's most developed economy.

Instead, South Africa switched suddenly to the J&J vaccines and only received a shipment of 80,000 doses flown in from Belgium late Tuesday night. Those vaccines were taken straight to a secure facility and shipped to vaccination centers across the country overnight to be ready for the rollout on Wednesday, the government said.