Background: We aimed to assess the effectiveness of a single dose of the Ad26.COV2.S vaccine (Johnson & Johnson) in health-care workers in South Africa during two waves of the South African COVID-19 epidemic. Methods: In the single-arm, open-label, phase 3B implementation Sisonke study, health-care workers aged 18 years and older were invited for vaccination at one of 122 vaccination sites nationally. Participants received a single dose of 5 × 1010 viral particles of the Ad26.COV2.S vaccine. Vaccinated participants were linked with their person-level data from one of two national medical insurance schemes (scheme A and scheme B) and matched for COVID-19 risk with an unvaccinated member of the general population. The primary outcome was vaccine effectiveness against severe COVID-19, defined as COVID-19-related admission to hospital, hospitalisation requiring critical or intensive care, or death, in health-care workers compared with the general population, ascertained 28 days or more after vaccination or matching, up to data cutoff. This study is registered with the South African National Clinical Trial Registry, DOH-27-022021-6844, ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT04838795, and the Pan African Clinical Trials Registry, PACTR202102855526180, and is closed to accrual. Findings: Between Feb 17 and May 17, 2021, 477 102 health-care workers were enrolled and vaccinated, of whom 357 401 (74·9%) were female and 119 701 (25·1%) were male, with a median age of 42·0 years (33·0–51·0). 215 813 vaccinated individuals were matched with 215 813 unvaccinated individuals. As of data cutoff (July 17, 2021), vaccine effectiveness derived from the total matched cohort was 83% (95% CI 75–89) to prevent COVID-19-related deaths, 75% (69–82) to prevent COVID-19-related hospital admissions requiring critical or intensive care, and 67% (62–71) to prevent COVID-19-related hospitalisations. The vaccine effectiveness for all three outcomes were consistent across scheme A and scheme B. The vaccine effectiveness was maintained in older health-care workers and those with comorbidities including HIV infection. During the course of the study, the beta (B.1.351) and then the delta (B.1.617.2) SARS-CoV-2 variants of concerns were dominant, and vaccine effectiveness remained consistent (for scheme A plus B vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19-related hospital admission during beta wave was 62% [95% CI 42–76] and during delta wave was 67% [62–71], and vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19-related death during beta wave was 86% [57–100] and during delta wave was 82% [74–89]). Interpretation: The single-dose Ad26.COV2.S vaccine shows effectiveness against severe COVID-19 disease and COVID-19-related death after vaccination, and against both beta and delta variants, providing real-world evidence for its use globally. Funding: National Treasury of South Africa, the National Department of Health, Solidarity Response Fund NPC, The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, The Elma Vaccines and Immunization Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.