Barely a week after over a million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine arrived in South Africa, the country’s government said it has suspended the rollout of the jabs for failing to protect clinical trial volunteers from mild or moderate illness.
Authorities said preliminary investigations showed the vaccines did not protect volunteers from the more contagious variant of the disease known as B.1.351.
South Africa’s health minister, Zweli Mkhize, said findings of the trial conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand showed the AstraZeneca vaccine reduced mild-to-moderate COVID-19 by just 22 per cent, Sky News reported.
The vaccine rollout would be put on hold to study its effects including on severe cases in more detail “until the scientists give us clear indications as to what we need to do”, the health minister said on Sunday.
Nigeria is expecting to receive 16 million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines before the end of February, authorities said.
No deaths or hospitalisations were recorded in the study, which involved more than 2,000 people with a median age of 31.
According to the New York Times, the study was limited by the fact that subjects were predominantly young, healthy adults and that numbers were small, AstraZeneca said Saturday.
This makes it difficult to pinpoint just how effective or not the vaccine might be against the variant, scientists say.
Because the clinical trial participants were young and unlikely to become severely ill, also made it difficult to determine if the variant interfered with the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine’s ability to protect against severe COVID-19, hospitalizations or deaths.
This is a heavy setback to South Africa’s vaccine rollout target. The country is the most adversely impacted by the coronavirus in Africa with nearly 1.5 infections and over 46,000 people dead.
In a bid to curb the spread and bend the fatality curve, South Africa was on the verge of a massive vaccine rollout plan now scuttled by the recent findings about the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The South African government had planned to start vaccinating frontline health workers this month using 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that are being supplied by India’s Serum Institute, the Financial Times reported.
The government will now switch to other alternative vaccines such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines.
The country has so far secured 9 million J&J doses and 20 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine.
“What does (this) mean for our vaccination programme which we said will start in February? The answer is it will proceed,” Mr Mkhize said in an online briefing on Sunday, Sky News reported.
“From next week, (and) for the next four weeks, we expect that there will be J&J vaccines, there will be Pfizer vaccines. So what will be available to the health workers will be those vaccines.
“The AstraZeneca vaccine will remain with us, up until the scientists give us clear indications as to what we need to do.”
The COVID-19 variant, B.1.351 was first found in South Africa and has now spread to at least 32 countries, including Nigeria and the United States.
South Africa’s health minister said the variant is currently accounting for more than 90 per cent of coronavirus cases in South Africa.
While the new research findings have not been published in a scientific journal, its troubling discovery that the AstraZeneca-Oxford product showed minimal efficacy in preventing mild and moderate cases of the new variant building on the growing evidence that B.1.351 makes vaccines less effective.
South African scientists had warned that the new variant may render the current slate of vaccines less effective, a situation partly blamed for the rising vaccine hesitancy in the country.
Pfizer and Moderna both said preliminary studies found their vaccines to be effective against the new highly-contagious coronavirus variants.
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