South Africa is considering swapping or selling the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, the health minister announces.
The African country has 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
However, plans to use it to vaccinate health workers have been put on hold after a small study suggested a “minimal” effect against the South African new variant in young people.
South Africa now intends to use a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson instead.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told at a news conference: “There are already some countries that are asking that we must sell it to them.
“Our scientists will continue with further deliberations on the AstraZeneca vaccine used in South Africa and depending on their advice, the vaccine will be swapped before the expiry date.”
Zweli Mkhize added that he was due to speak with the WHO shortly after the news conference.
South Africa has recorded almost 1.5 million cases of coronavirus, and 47,000 deaths – far more than anywhere else on the continent.
Researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the UK’s Oxford University carried out the trial, which has not yet been published or peer-reviewed, on around 2,000 healthy, young people with an average age of 31.
They found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild and moderate cases of the South Africa variant of coronavirus in that low-risk group.
This means that even in people who’ve been vaccinated, the virus could still spread from person to person.
However, the research did not look at the impact of the vaccine on severe disease from Covid-19 because there was no-one in the study who was in a high-risk category (over 50) or had an underlying health condition.
Oxford University researchers say promising results from other trials using similar vaccines in South Africa suggest their shot should be effective at preventing severe cases – the main aim of all Covid vaccines.
South Africa now plans to give the AstraZeneca vaccine to a group of 100,000 older nurses and healthcare workers.
That’s to see if it is effective against the new variant and in preventing severe illness in an older age group.
The South Africa variant carries a mutation that appears to make it more contagious or easy to spread.
However, there is no evidence that the variant causes more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.
As with the original strain, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.
Scientists say the variant accounts for 90% of new Covid-19 cases in South Africa.
At least 20 other countries, including the UK, Austria, Japan, Kenya and Norway have found cases of the variant.
The health minister for neighboring Eswatini, previously known as Swaziland, said on February 9 that it would no longer use the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The health authorities in Malawi have said they still plan to use the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Negotiations are still going on over the amount and the price South Africa will pay for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is made by Belgian pharmaceutical firm Janssen.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has not yet been approved for use in South Africa.
The first of the nine million doses it has ordered are due to arrive next week.
The South African health minister said these would be provided to some 500,000 health workers as “an implementation study”, possibly starting as early as next week, but this was still to be confirmed.
He also promised to explain next week just how much of the vaccine will be coming to South Africa.
Zweli Mkhize said that South Africa had already secured vaccine doses from Pfizer which it has agreed to bring in earlier than originally agreed.
South Africa is also in discussions with other manufactures, including the makers of Sputnik V, Sinovac and Moderna vaccines, he added.