Discovery Health CEO: 25,000 lives can be saved if 70% of SA is vaccinated by 2022

In one of the biggest Covid-19 research surveys in the world, Discovery Health has released data with the focus of understanding what more can be done to enhance and protect the lives of its customers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Ryan Noach, CEO of Discovery Health, sits down with BizNews founder, Alec Hogg to discuss the findings of the study. Noach says these insights have the potential to inform and transform its understanding and decision-making in navigating the current landscape. He adds that he believes if South Africa reaches its 70% vaccination deadline, “We could save 25,000 people from dying from the virus.” – Misha Samuels

Ryan Noach on participants and actuaries in the study: 

We are the largest employer of actuaries in South Africa. In our health informatics team, we have a team of about 30 actuaries, clinicians, and statisticians that spend all day every day just poring over our data and understanding what we can learn, from not only [the] vaccination data, but all sorts of clinical data to improve the quality of care and the efficiency of care our members receive. The database is large. We have two and a half million vaccine doses that have been administered to members by Discovery Health Medical Scheme.

Through those people, about 1.2 million adult members have been vaccinated. The balance of the adult members not vaccinated and the comparison of vaccinated against unvaccinated is a large number of lives; we looked at about 1.7 million data points through different population groups. So, this is a statistically relevant sample. It has not yet been peer-reviewed as, you know, through the Covid-19 period, a lot of research has been published in what is called ‘preprint’ because of the urgency to get the data out there. We’ve had some external experts look at the work we’ve done, but it hasn’t been formally peer-reviewed and published yet. It is our intention to do that, too.

On the risks that surfaced in vaccinated Discovery members:

We haven’t seen one single documented vaccine-related death in our data. Of the 2.5 million doses that have been given to our members, we have seen the three most common side effects after the administration of the vaccine are actually relatively manageable. We are discounting the very mild side effects, so there is a proportion of people who end up with muscle pain, fatigue, headaches, perhaps a very short period of fever in the first couple of days after the vaccination. Discounting those and looking at more severe side effects, the three that popped out are lymphadenopathy, which is just an enlargement of the lymph glands, [a] completely benign enlargement [that] occurred 31 times out of every 100,000 doses administered.

We saw myositis in some people, which is an inflammation of the muscles. We did see that as a complication that happened in nine out of every 100,000 doses administered. We [also] saw a third condition called paresthesia, which is a tingling sensation, usually from irritation of a nerve in three out of every 100,000 doses [administered]. These were the only three side effects that were statistically relevant and no more severe than the very mild stuff you hear about.

In all cases, it [was] resolved, treated and managed. I should just make the point that all three of these conditions are known complications of Covid-19. The incidence of them happening in Covid-19 itself with the disease is [much] higher, 40-fold higher. [However], in the case of lymphadenopathy, it is following vaccination. So, the short answer is that it’s extremely safe, and the side effect profile that we saw is really nothing to be terribly concerned about at all. 

On the consistency of Discovery research findings to that of the NHS in the UK:

[Our findings are completely consistent with the NHS.] In fact, the consistency was something we questioned ourselves about because it is unusual to see such high levels of consistency in research around population groups in different parts of the world. We often end up having to explain why our data is starkly inconsistent because of different healthcare systems, different genetic pools, different environments. In this case, our data is entirely consistent almost to the second percentage point, with a lot of other data coming from elsewhere in the world. The precision associated with this research that we have done is very high. The methodologies are extremely robust and I believe it speaks to a very robust approach towards researching the vaccines by medicine regulators and other organisations like [ours] all over the world. We’’re coming out [with] a statistically significant sample size with very similar data. I think if you look at some of the very small samples round the world, there is some variation in the data but you should always rather compare big samples of data, and then it’s highly consistent.

On the argument of natural immunity vs vaccine immunity

Two very clear answers for that. The data is unequivocal that being vaccinated gives you stronger immunity against Covid-19 complications, particularly in the immunity that emerges from a natural infection. The second thing [if you have had Covid-19], use the advantage you’ve got [natural immunity] and give yourself ‘superpowers’; this colloquial super immunity that is being talked about by getting vaccinated on top of that. This creates what in science we [refer to] as ‘hybrid-immunity’, the best protection you can get in today’s world. There is every reason to be vaccinated. We do believe a large proportion of the population has had infections. What we see across the world, though, is that there is a few months’ gap between waves where immunity from previous infections in a previous wave wears off. Then when another wave arrives, it infects a great deal of the population again. In our own data, we [have identified] about 12,000 [of our] members who have had Covid-19 more than once. 

On the possibility of a fourth wave and the impact vaccination statistics: 

We think we [will] still have a fourth wave, but we’ve been able to draw a direct line between the number of vaccinated people and the number of deaths. We think we could save 25,000 people from dying if we achieved 70% vaccination by the end of the year. 

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