South Africa will this afternoon receive its first one million consignment of Covid-19 vaccine from India’s Serum Institute. President Cyril Ramaphosa, including health minister Zweli Mkhize, will lead a senior government delegation to receive the vaccine at the OR Tambo International Airport. The announcement has been widely welcome and described “historic moment in the country’s fights against the coronavirus”.
Another 500 000 are scheduled to arrive later this month. The Covishield vaccine doses were produced under the licence of the Swiss pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
Minister Mkhize said priority will be given to healthcare workers adding that the vaccine will undergo a series of strict quality assurance stages to ensure its safety. He said they have made adequate preparations in terms of how they will roll-out the vaccination programme.
The vaccine will then be moved to specialised storage facilities before it can be transported to all the nine provinces. South Africa has about 1.5 million infections which are arguably the highest than any other country on the continent. South Africa is targeting to vaccine 67% (estimated to be about 40 million people) of the population to reach “herd community” threshold.
Meanwhile, the University of the Witwatersrand has moved to clarify its earlier statements just a day after it announced that its Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trial in South Africa has shown to be effective against the new Covid-19 variant. The vaccine is currently being tested locally and in the United Kingdom.
In its first statement released last Thursday the university said: “The Novavax vaccine, known as NVX-CoV2373, is the first vaccine to demonstrate not only high clinical efficacy against the prototype SARS-CoV-2, but also significant clinical efficacy against both the rapidly emerging South African (501Y.V2 variant) and UK mutant (N501Y) variants.”
It has since been established that media reports confused the efficacy of the trial percentage with an overall effectiveness. In its clarification Wits said the “Novovax vaccine was 60% effective in combating HIV”. But when it comes to the vaccine’s effectiveness to fight the Covid-19 virus, this dropped to 50% in trials.
According to Health-e News “When scientists combined the results for the two groups of test subjects, the overall effectiveness of the jab went down to 49.4%.”
Professor Shabir Madhi, head of the university’s Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics research unit (VIDA) said, the vaccine in the UK has higher efficacy than in South Africa and this is because “the variants circulating in SA are less sensitive to vaccine induced immune responses”.
Said Professor Madhi: “Nevertheless, the 60% reduced risk against Covid-19 illness in vaccinated individuals in South Africans underscores the value of this vaccine to prevent illness from the highly worrisome variant currently circulating in South Africa, and which is spreading globally.”
Madhi added that: “The public health value of vaccines extends beyond a simple point estimate. The ability of Covid-19 vaccines to impact the pandemic will depend on the product, its efficacy, and how quickly we can scale up coverage of the vaccine eventually.”
The vaccine trials started after scientists detected a new variant of Covid-19 in December. Novavax “initiated development of new constructs against the emerging strains in early January and expects to select ideal candidates for a booster or combination bivalent vaccine for the new strains in the coming days. The company plans to initiate clinical testing of these new vaccines in the second quarter of this year.
The second phase of trials in South Africa is expected to enrol up to 2,904 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 64. The aim is to test the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine against the existing Covid-19 strain and the new variant.
Gregory M Glenn, Novavax president of Research and Development said the primary benefit of the initiative is that they created a platform that “uses a very small amount of antigen, enabling the rapid creation and large-scale production of combination vaccine candidates that could potentially address multiple circulating strains of Covid-19.”
He added that “combined with the safety profile that has been observed in our studies to-date with our COVID-19 vaccine, as well as prior studies in influenza, we are optimistic about our ability to rapidly adapt to evolving conditions.”
The manufacturing of doses of NVX-CoV2373 for the Phase 2b clinical trial was funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributed a $15 million grant.