South Africa has decided to suspend its rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on hold after a study showed “disappointing” results against its new Covid variant.
According to scientists, the new variant accounts for 90% of new Covid cases in South Africa.
The trial, involving some 2,000 people, found that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild and moderate cases.
However, experts are hopeful that the vaccine will still be effective at preventing severe cases.
South Africa has recorded almost 1.5 million coronavirus cases and more than 46,000 deaths since the pandemic began – a higher toll than any other country on the continent.
South Africa has received one million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and was preparing to start vaccinating people.
On February 8, the WHO warned against jumping to conclusions about the efficacy of Covid vaccines.
Dr. Katherine O’Brien, the WHO’s director of immunization, said it was very plausible that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine would still have a meaningful impact on the South African variant, especially when it came to preventing hospitalizations and death.
She stressed that the WHO’s expert panel held “a very positive view” of proceeding with the use of the vaccine, including in areas where variants were circulating, but that more data and information would be needed as the pandemic continued.
South Africa’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said his government would wait for further advice on how best to proceed with the AstraZeneca vaccine in light of the findings.
In the meantime, he said, the government would offer vaccines produced by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer in the coming weeks.
Early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is still effective against the South Africa variant, while AstraZeneca has said its vaccine provides good protection against the UK variant first identified late last year.
Early results also suggest the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine protects against the new variants.