The country worst-hit by the pandemic in Africa has suspended its vaccine rollout — meant to begin with Oxford/AstraZeneca this week — after a study found the jab failed to prevent mild and moderate illness caused by a variant discovered in South Africa dubbed 501Y.V2.
South Africa is considering trading its doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which may be less effective against a local virus variant, and beginning its inoculation campaign with Johnson & Johnson shots instead, the health minister said Wednesday.
The vaccination delay has set back an ambitious plan to inoculate around 40 million people — 67 percent of the population — by the end of 2021.
“Given the outcomes of the efficacy studies (government) will continue with the planned phase one vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines instead of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a press briefing.
“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant.”
He did not say when immunisation would begin.
Meantime officials are deciding on the fate of more than a million Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines already secured from the Serum Institute of India (SII) and set to expire at the end of April, though that date could potentially be adjusted.
Mkhize pointed at several options, including selling or swapping the doses with countries tackling the original coronavirus strain.
Scientific advisors have also suggested administering the vaccine to several thousand people within South Africa to assess whether it can still prevent severe infection from 501Y.V2.
“Depending on their advice, the vaccine will be swapped before the expiry date,” he said, adding that “there are already countries who are asking to sell it to them”.
“Our scientists will continue with further deliberations on the AstraZeneca vaccine use in South Africa,” Mkhize explained, assuring that nothing would go to waste.
The World Health Organization announced later on Wednesday that the Oxford/AstraZeneca formula could be used in settings where “variants are present”, as well as on people over the age of 65.