Days after South Africa temporarily halted the use of AstraZeneca vaccine as part of its Covid-19 vaccination plan, the WHO has advised that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is safe to be administered to anyone above the age of 18.
The decision to suspend of the roll-out of the vaccine was based on the small clinical trial recently conducted in the country. The trial discovered that the vaccine had 22% efficacy in preventing mild to moderate Covid-19 caused by the second variant of the coronavirus.
The global health organisation’s advisory group, Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (Sage) on Wednesday released its preliminary reports giving a go-ahead for the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
Sage’s chairman on immunisation, Dr Alejandro Cravioto said: “In the case of the data coming from clinical trials, we have seen that there was a small participation of people over 65 years of age. However, the results of the efficacy estimate for persons up to 65 and older had a wide confidence interval. And therefore we feel that the response of this group cannot be any different to groups that are of a younger age.”
He said based on the evidence gathered so far, the group recommends that “this vaccine should be administered in two doses of 0.5ml each, with an interval of between four and 12 weeks between the first and the second dose.”
Added Dr Cravioto: “Since we have identified ‘people over 65’ was one of our priority groups in the prioritisation roadmap… looking at the safety and immunogenicity data… we recommend for the vaccine to be used in people 18 years and above, without an upper age limit.
Some of the experts involved in the vaccine welcomed the news particularly because they are endorsed by the WHO. Professor Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology, and chief investigator who has been involved on the Oxford vaccine trial, said: “This decision paves the way to more widespread use of the vaccine to protect people against COVID-19 and gain control of the pandemic.”
Another expert, Professor Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity, and chief investigator who was also part of the Oxford vaccine trial, also hailed the announcement.
“The new guidance from WHO is an important milestone in extending access to the Oxford-AZ vaccine to all corners of the world and providing further endorsement that after rigorous scrutiny by the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts the vaccine can be used to help protect populations from the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
Despite putting a temporary stop to the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the country, local medical experts including professors Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council and Shabir Madhi, principal investigator in the South African trials, appealed to government not to discard the stock. They said the vaccine can still protect against severe Covid-19, hospitalisation and death caused by the 501Y.V2 mutations of the virus recently identified in the country. In addition, they noted that the AstraZeneca vaccine “is the cheapest and most readily available Covid-19 vaccine available globally at present”.
Madhi recently told a webinar hosted by the Daily Maverick that: “If South Africa becomes reckless in dealing with the AstraZeneca vaccine it will have global repercussions. This vaccine will be the cheapest and the most readily available. The toss-up might be between no vaccine and a vaccine that likely will protect against death and hospitalisation.”