Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday said scientists will advise government on what to do with the AstraZeneca vaccine after a study revealed it offers minimal protection against mild-moderate infection caused by the new coronavirus variant.
He said the advice of the health experts will determine the next course of action including whether or not to swap the vaccine before the expiry date.
Mkhize was giving an update on government’s latest vaccine programme following the decision to put AstraZeneca on temporary hold. He confirmed that government will use Johnson & Johnson vaccine to continue with the planned Phase 1 vaccination plan.
Mkhize said South African scientists have been involved in studies to determine the efficacy of various vaccine since 2020, adding it was as a direct result of these studies that it was established that the AstraZeneca vaccine cannot treat mild to moderate disease of the 501Y.V2 variant.
Mkhize said the development of all vaccines is informed and based on the original SARS-COV-2 variant that was prevalent throughout the world.
Said Mkhize: “They [scientists] paid a dedicated focus on the impact of vaccines against the 501Y.V2 variant in the latter part of the year and in early January 2021. The results of these studies became available only on Friday, last week and was publicly released on Sunday.”
He said when the 501Y.V2 variant was discovered, government’s vaccine procurement processes had already commenced. South Africa could not delay receipt of the vaccine batches, said Mkhize, while waiting for the results of the efficacy studies by our scientists, as this would have relegated the country to the back of the line for vaccines due to global shortage of supplies.
About the expiry of the AstraZeneca stock in April, Mkhize said, it must be borne in mind that the vaccines have not expired as yet. He said according to department of health’s original vaccine roll-out plan, the AstraZeneca doses would have been used by the expiry date. He added that the April expiry date was not discovered by accident but it was a direct result of their stringent quality assurance and control protocols.
Mkhize said they are also considering and engaging other pharmaceutical companies and countries to assess their candidate vaccines. These include Russia’s Sputnik V candidate and China’s Sinopharm.
“A Non-Disclosure Agreement has been signed and the ratification processes in SAHPRA is in progress. Similarly, our engagements with Moderna are on-going and we will make further announcements, as we always do, when we are in a position to do so,” he said.
He said Aspen, a locally-based global pharmaceutical and drug manufacturing company, is busy developing a vaccine and the first batch is expected in April. Mkhize said government will carry cost for the South African citizens who have no medical aid, adding that the public should report any side effects from the vaccines.
Mkhize also indicated that the country would be able to meet one of the conditions of the Pfizer vaccines which require a storage temperature of -70 degrees Celsius. He said they discovered that a number of state laboratories are capable of storing their medication under the same conditions. We have also been approached, added Mkhize, by a number of local companies who wanted to avail their facilities to store the vaccines.
“We wish to remind fellow citizens that the mainstay of preventing Covid-19, until the country reaches population immunity, remains the continued adherence to health protocols of washing hands with soap or 70% alcohol-based sanitiser, wearing of masks in public, and to keep to the 1.5 meters social distance,” conclude Mkhize.