The rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine programme to inoculate the South African population against the Covid-19 this month has hit snag, just a week after the first batch of the arrival of the doses was met with jubilation.
This follows a new study which revealed that AstraZeneca vaccine is not effective enough to fight the 501Y.V2 variant of the virus currently circulating in the country.
According to the latest statistics of the country’s coronavirus there are 1 376 new infections, 183 fatalities and 92% recoveries.
The University of the Witwatersrand conducted, a yet to be peer-reviewed study, which concluded that the British vaccine provided “a minimal protection against mild to moderate COVID-19 infection first identified in South Africa late last year”.
According to the study the vaccine was only 22% effective in moderate cases of the South African variant of the disease. However, it has been established that the vaccine has “high efficacy rate against the original coronavirus”.
The other serious setback regarding the Covid-19 vaccine is the fact that the vaccine will expire in April. This has raised concerns that the doses will be rendered worthless long before they could be administered to the healthcare workers who have been lined up to get the first jab.
Health minister Zweli Mkhize said government has decided to suspend the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine following the new information. Mkhize said government will engage with Serum Institute of India to find out if they could be allowed to return the stock, as the normal expiry period for vaccines is usually six months.
Mkhize, together with members of the country’s Ministerial Advisory Committee and leading scientists, Professors Shabir Madhi, Glenda Gray, Barry Schoub, and Salim Abdool Karim, on Sunday briefed the country on the latest developments related to the vaccine rollout plans.
Professor Madhi, supported by other experts such as Professor Barry Schoub said that vaccination is the only effective way in which the country can reduce the Covid-19 infections and deaths. They said the country’s main focus should be on the prevention of severe diseases to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.
But professor Madhi warned that South Africa should expect yet another resurgence of the virus in three to four months. He said that the country can still distribute the AstraZeneca stock as they do not pose any harm, adding the vaccine can still provide some measure of protection against any serious illness.
However, amid the gloom caused by the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, good news is that the Johnson & Johnson Janssen AD26 vaccine is effective in preventing severe cases of the virus. J&J have already submitted an application for emergency use approval to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) for its approval.
Mkhize told members of the health portfolio committee last Friday that the country would be getting 9 million doses from Johnson & Johnson, 20 million from Pfizer and 12 million from the Covax facility.
Meanwhile, Voice of America News reported on Sunday that AstraZeneca has already started developing “second-generation Covid-19 vaccines” by adapting existing vaccines to cover mutations.
The vaccine manufacturer said the tweaked vaccine will be more effective against the South African variant and promised a short turnaround. Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, was quoted as saying “efforts are underway to develop a new generation of vaccines that will allow protection to be redirected to emerging variants as booster jabs, if it turns out that it is necessary to do so.”
Gilbert added they are also working closely with AstraZeneca to come up with other new-generation vaccines that can fight any strain of the virus in future and also monitor the emergence of new variants.