AstraZeneca vaccine has major role to play, SA trial lead says

Prof Shabir Madhi from Wits believes the AstraZeneca vaccine has a major role to play in Africa and globally. File photo.
Prof Shabir Madhi from Wits believes the AstraZeneca vaccine has a major role to play in Africa and globally. File photo.
Image: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The lead investigator on the SA trial of AstraZeneca's vaccine said he believed it had a major role to play in Africa and globally, despite data showing the vaccine offered minimal protection against mild to moderate Covid-19 caused by the country's dominant virus variant.

Prof Shabir Madhi from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg told Reuters he would begin rolling out the one million AstraZeneca doses already in the country immediately, since they expire in April and it would be reckless to waste them.

“It doesn't make any sense to have one million doses of vaccine available to us which are known to be safe and to not start distributing it at least for high-risk groups,” Madhi said in an interview.

SA health officials said on Sunday they were putting AstraZeneca vaccinations on hold temporarily while they sought scientific advice on how to proceed. Vaccinations had been due to start soon, after the first vaccine doses arrived by plane from India last week.

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SA has recorded the most coronavirus infections on the African continent and over 46,000 deaths. It aims to vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of its population, to reach some level of herd immunity.

Madhi said it was likely the AstraZeneca shot would protect against severe Covid-19, since it was developed using a similar technology to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has been shown to be effective in preventing severe Covid-19.

SA needed to recalibrate its expectations about vaccines this week after the trial showing reduced efficacy against mild-to-moderate illness caused by the more contagious 501Y.V2 variant, as well as to decide which groups to target and to start rolling out doses next week, he said.

“To start turning your back on a vaccine that could potentially save lives, I couldn't understand the logic behind it,” Madhi said.

He said he would use the AstraZeneca vaccine to start protecting SA's elderly and those with comorbidities.

The country's initial vaccination plan was to meant to start with health workers, but Madhi said the majority of the illness that was likely to occur among that group was mild to moderate infection and so the AstraZeneca jab would be better deployed on those at greater risk of severe illness.

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