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File photo of the AstraZeneca vaccine
File photo of the AstraZeneca vaccine
Image: Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images

South Africa suspends AstraZeneca vaccinations amid concern over efficacy

Researchers are working to update the vaccine to deal with the South African variant.
Feb 8th 2021, 2:40 PM 52,965 40

SOUTH AFRICA HAS suspended the start of its AstraZeneca inoculation programme over concerns the shot does not work on the SA variant, with WHO experts due to meet today to discuss the vaccine already facing questions about its efficacy for over-65s.

A study published today found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab was not effective at preventing mild illness caused by the more infectious South African mutation.

A trial showed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine provides only “minimal” protection against mild to moderate Covid-19 caused by the variant first detected in South Africa, a setback to the global fight against the pandemic as many poorer nations are relying on the logistical advantages offered by the AstraZeneca shot.

The findings could mean that British citizens will need a third vaccine dose this year.

WHO are experts due to meet today to discuss the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which has faced some questions about evidence of its efficacy for people aged over-65s.

However, virologist Müge Çevik said this was “a small study” and “cannot answer the efficacy question with confidence, and protection against severe illness is currently unknown but probable”.

Africa’s hardest-hit nation was due to start its vaccination campaign in the coming days with a million AstraZeneca doses but the government decided to hold off in light of the results from the trial conducted by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“It’s a temporary issue that we have to hold on AstraZeneca until we figure out these issues,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters yesterday.

The 1.5 million AstraZeneca vaccines obtained by South Africa, which will expire in April, will be kept until scientists give clear indications on their use, he added.

AstraZeneca, which developed the shot with the University of Oxford, told AFP: “We do believe our vaccine will still protect against severe disease.”

A company spokesperson said researchers are already working to update the vaccine to deal with the South African variant, which has been spreading rapidly around the world.

Pfizer vaccine effective against variant

2.56899314 Source: PA Graphics

The news comes as a small study suggests that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against the same variant.

In a small study of 20 vaccine recipients, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, America, found that the Pfizer vaccine neutralises the virus with the N501Y and E484K mutations.

In the UTMB study published today, after testing the sera samples – obtained from blood – authors found evidence that the mutant viruses were neutralised – destroyed by the sera panel.

However, there was variation as neutralisation against the E484K mutation was slightly lower than neutralisation against the N501Y mutation, according to the study published in Nature Medicine.

New strains of the virus that appeared in the UK and South Africa share the same N501Y mutation. A separate South African strain has an E484K mutation, but a number of cases have also been detected in the UK causing concern.

 

Worth Health Org meeting

A World Health Organization panel is due to meet today in Geneva to examine the shot, which is a major component of the initial Covax global vaccine rollout that covers some 145 countries – mostly lower income and lower-middle income economies.

Out of the initial 337.2 million Covax doses, 240 million are AstraZeneca shots, which do not require the super-cold storage needed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

There were already concerns about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca shot among over-65s, with a number of European nations not authorising it yet for that demographic.

In Ireland, it is expected that people aged 70 and over will have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by mid-April.

The original plan had been for all people in this age cohort to receive their first dose by the end of March.

However, given supply issues and the government’s decision that over 70s would not receive the newly-approved AstraZeneca vaccine and instead be given the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, this looks set to delay that process by a few weeks.

‘Be careful’

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than 2.3 million lives globally out of nearly 106 million known infections, and despite the AstraZeneca setback, vaccine rollouts in other countries are gathering pace.

Hungarian authorities yesterday said they have approved Russia’s Sputnik V shot, while Cambodia became the latest nation to receive delivery of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, taking on 600,000 doses of the jab.

Efforts are under way in the United States, the hardest-hit nation, to accelerate its mass vaccination programme, which has been plagued by supply and logistics issues.

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US President Joe Biden, who took office last month, said his predecessor Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic “was even more dire than we thought”.

“We thought they had indicated there was a lot more vaccine available, and it didn’t turn out to be the case,” he told CBS News yesterday. “So that’s why we’ve ramped up every way we can.”

Biden also asked American football fans to “be careful”, with health experts worried about the virus spreading at parties expected during and after the Super Bowl, the country’s biggest sporting event.

“I was bored at home.”

Schools were also expected to reopen on Monday in Romania, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria. Museums and shops were also due to reopen in Austria.

And there was both gloom and optimism in Venice, where the annual Carnival kicked off with much smaller celebrations.

“Venice is strange this year. It is shocking to see it so empty,” said Armando Bala, a costume salesman.

“We are here today to say that Venice can live and be reborn, as it has several times in its history.”

© AFP 2021 with reporting by Órla Ryan

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