SOUTH Africa has suspended its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after a study revealed the drug failed to stop some cases of a new mutant strain.
A trial showed the jab provides only "minimal" protection against mild to moderate Covid-19 caused by the variant first detected in the virus-ravaged country – but it does help to stop the most serious infections.
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The news is seen as a setback in the global fight against the pandemic as many poorer nations are relying on the logistical advantages offered by the AstraZeneca shot.
Africa's hardest-hit nation was due to start its campaign in the coming days with a million doses but the government decided to hold off in light of the trial conducted by the University of Witatersrand in Johannesburg.
"It's a temporary issue…until we figure out these issues," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters last night.
The country's government had planned to give the jab to healthcare workers, after receiving a million doses produced by the Serum Institute of India last week.
Instead, it will offer those workers alternative vaccines from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) over the next few weeks.
"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.
"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."
He added: "The AstraZeneca vaccine will remain with us, up until the scientists give us clear indications as to what we need to do."
Mr Mkhize said the variant is currently accounting for more than 90 per cent of coronavirus cases in South Africa.
The AstraZeneca vaccines obtained by South Africa – due to expire in April – will be kept until scientists give clear indications on their use, he added.
AstraZeneca, which developed the shot with the University of Oxford, later said: "We do believe our vaccine will still protect against severe disease."
And in a paper due to be published later today, the firm will report that none of the 2,000 participants in its trials developed serious symptoms meaning it could still have an effect on severe illness.
A company spokesperson said researchers were already working to update the vaccine to deal with the South African variant, which has been spreading rapidly around the world.
A World Health Organization panel is due to meet today to examine the shot, which is a major component of the initial Covax global vaccine rollout that covers some 145 countries – mostly lower- and lower-middle income economies.
Out of the initial 337.2 million Covax doses, 240 million are AstraZeneca shots, which do not require the super-cold storage needed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
There were already concerns about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca shot among over-65s, with a number of European nations not authorising it yet for their older residents.
The news from South Africa comes after UK vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi urged the British public to keep faith with thejab, suggesting that an annual rollout of booster jabs was likely to be required.
And as it was revealed a 147 people in the UK have now been infected with the South African variant.
“Surge” testing is currently underway in twelve areas of the UK where the variant has been detected in a bid to contain the spread.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Zahawi said that the emergence of new variants was “worrying” – but stressed that the vaccines were still effective against the dominant strains.
He wrote: “We should bear in mind that recent studies show the vaccines being deployed right now across the UK appear to work well against the Covid-19 variants currently dominant in the UK.
“In terms of other variants, not in the UK, we need to be aware that even where a vaccine has reduced efficacy in preventing infection there may still be good efficacy against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death.
“This is vitally important for protecting the healthcare system.”
Mr Zahawi warned the country may need a rolling programme with annual jabs or a booster in the autumn to protect against the mutant strains.
The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 2.3 million lives globally out of nearly 106 million known infections, and despite the AstraZeneca setback, vaccine rollouts in other countries are gathering pace.
Hungarian authorities said Sunday they have approved Russia's Sputnik V shot, while Cambodia became the latest nation to receive delivery of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, taking on 600,000 doses of the jab.
Efforts are under way in the United States, the hardest-hit nation, to accelerate its mass vaccination programme, which has been plagued by supply and logistics issues.
President Joe Biden, who took office last month, said his predecessor Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic "was even more dire than we thought".
"We thought they had indicated there was a lot more vaccine available, and it didn't turn out to be the case," he told CBS News on Sunday. "So that's why we've ramped up every way we can."
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