Researchers to regain access to vital vaccine data

Medical Research Council issues upbeat statement after meeting with health department

By James Stent

8 December 2021

President Cyril Ramaphosa receives his vaccination in February 2020. Archive photo: Jeffrey Abrahams

The South African Medical Research Council has announced that after consultations with the National Department of Health, data from the Electronic Vaccination Data System will be shared with state epidemiologists investigating vaccine efficacy, “within the prescripts of the POPIA [Protection of Personal Information Act]”.

On Monday GroundUp revealed that the national health department had withdrawn access to Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) data, hindering the work of researchers from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Western Cape Department of Health, and other epidemiologists investigating vaccine efficacy in South Africa.

The EVDS data can be combined with SAMRC and Western Cape data, for example, to show the difference between Covid infections, hospitalisations and deaths between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

SAMRC President and CEO Professor Glenda Gray is quoted in the press release as saying that the “SAMRC will work with the Western Cape Department of Health to utilise this data for research purposes and for nothing else. Researchers evaluating this data will be an extension of the national health department team.”

The statement refers to concerns about the EVDS data as it relates to the Protection of Personal Information Act. But section 37 of that Act permits the use of personal information when it is in the public interest.

The MRC statement said: “The EVDS Privacy Policy, that everyone who registers for Covid-19 vaccination consents to, guarantees that the data will not be used for any other purpose than personal vaccination medical records. The challenge has been on how to use the bio identity in the data to correlate with data on hospitalisation and deaths without exposing the personal data to potential abuse.”

EVDS data could in theory be used by provincial health departments to follow up people who have not returned for their second doses or booster shots. It remains unclear if the national department will allow provinces sufficient access to do this.