AstraZeneca vaccine rollout halted over low effectiveness toward South African variant

South Africa has temporarily halted its AstraZeneca vaccination drive after a new study emerged that the jab is not as effective with the new Covid-19 variant.

This study was carried out by the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and Oxford but is yet to be peer-reviewed. The study points out how AstraZeneca cannot establish the vaccine’s effectiveness against severe disease and hospitalizations linked to the new variant. 

Also read: UK conducts trials on ‘mixing’ covid-19 vaccines

AstraZeneca based its preliminary data on trials and studies released by Oxford University and the South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand. According to AstraZeneca’s spokesperson, early data shows “limited efficacy” against mild disease when introduced to the B.1.351 South African variant.

The spokesman also pointed out that they have been unable to ascertain its effect on severe illness given most of their test subjects were young healthy adults. AstraZeneca and Oxford have begun adapting this vaccine against the two variants and are expected to rush through clinical development so it can be ready by Autumn. 

What is the South African variant?

Virus mutations are normal and most mutations have little difference in how something functions. South Africa’s variant B.1.351/ 501.V2 has worried scientists over its high number of mutations, in particular the spike protein it uses to latch onto human cells and infect them.

Covid-19 vaccines and other treatments mainly target the spike protein of the virus. Leading companies Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, BioNTech SE, and Novavax Inc. have been working on new vaccines to target the South African variant which has proved less effective towards AstraZeneca’s vaccine and others.

Also read: Novavax Covid-19 vaccine proves 89% effective in UK clinical trials

South Africa tops Africa with over 1.5 million cases and 46,000 deaths so far. The first dose of a million vaccines arrived on Monday and an additional delivery of 500,000 doses should arrive in February. All are AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccines produced by the Serum Institute in India and are mainly earmarked for its 1.2 million health workers. 

According to South African Health Minister Dr. Zweli Mkhize, the country expects to have Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines in 4 weeks. The country anticipates 9 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, 20 million from Pfizer, and 12 million from the Covax facility. 

Currently, discussions are also being held with Moderna and the company behind the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. The once-shunned Russian vaccine has now received widespread approval in the fight against the pandemic. Hungary is one of the recent countries to approve its use joining a long list of countries such as Mexico, Lebanon, and Myanmar. 

Also read: New variants of the coronavirus determine new travel restrictions in Europe

Mkhize disclosed that the AstraZeneca vaccine will remain in South Africa as they wait on scientists to give the go-ahead on what to do with them. Shabir Madhi, a vaccination professor at Wits University, described the results as disappointing. In summary, he said that there was currently no way of ascertaining whether the AstraZeneca vaccine was effective on severe forms of the virus as their study did not look for this. 

Ph: Jerome Delay / The Associated Press