SA mulls 'stepped' rollout as global health officials back AstraZeneca vaccine

If the AstraZeneca vaccine does not work well against new evolving variants of the coronavirus, it could be an ominous sign for other vaccines as well. Stock photo.
If the AstraZeneca vaccine does not work well against new evolving variants of the coronavirus, it could be an ominous sign for other vaccines as well. Stock photo.
Image: Sasirin Pamai/123rf.com

Health officials around the world gave their backing to the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 after a study showing it had little effect against mild disease caused by the variant now spreading quickly in SA rang global alarms.

The prospect that new virus variants could evolve the ability to elude vaccines is one of the main risks hanging over the global strategy to emerge from the pandemic by rolling out vaccines this year.

SA, where a new variant now accounts for the vast bulk of cases, initially announced a pause in its rollout of one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

However, on Monday it said it could still roll it out in a “stepped manner” by distributing 100,000 doses and monitoring it to see if it prevents hospitalisations and deaths.

“It is vastly too early to be dismissing this vaccine,” said Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation that co-leads the global Covax programme to provide vaccine doses in poor countries.

More than 330 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine form the overwhelming majority of doses Covax aims to begin rolling out in a first phase in poor countries beginning as soon as this month.

“Obviously the world is full of the wild type virus that this AstraZeneca vaccine is known to work against,” Hatchett said.

Prof Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of SA’s ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, said it was too early to conclude the AstraZeneca would not prevent serious disease caused by the variant prevalent in the country.

If the vaccine does not work well against new evolving variants of the virus, it could be an ominous sign for other vaccines as well, showing the coronavirus can potentially thwart the efforts of scientists to fight it.

The overall message from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others was: do not panic.

Several global health officials noted the SA study was small and had tested the vaccine using a short four-week interval between the first and second doses, despite evidence having since emerged that it works better if there is a longer wait.

It was becoming “more and more clear that the longer the interval between the two doses the higher the efficacy,” said Kate O’Brien, head of immunisations at WHO.

The lead investigator on the SA trial told Reuters he believed the vaccine had a major role to play in Africa and globally, and the one million doses in SA, which expire in April, should be rolled out quickly, not wasted.

Western governments spoke out in favour of the vaccine, which many have given approval.

The vaccine is the main pillar of the vaccination programme in the UK, which has so far been the fastest of any large country to vaccinate members of the public. It is dealing mainly with another fast-spreading variant which the vaccine has been shown to work well against.

“We think both the vaccines we’re currently using are effective in stopping serious disease and death,” British prime minister Boris Johnson told reporters.

The UK is also using Pfizer’s vaccine.

Olivier Véran, health minister in France, which is hoping the vaccine will held speed up a programme that has lagged behind other rich countries, said the AstraZeneca vaccine provided sufficient protection against “nearly all the variants” of the virus.

However, if vaccines do not work as effectively as hoped against new and emerging variants, the world could be facing a much longer - and more expensive - battle against the virus than previously thought.

The variant dominant in SA is circulating in at least 40 other countries, including the US.

Austria warned against non-essential travel to its Alpine province of Tyrol because of an outbreak of the variant dominant in SA. Cases were also detected north of Paris, forcing one school to close.


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