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Covid-19 vaccine countdown is on, but will it be effective?

Picture: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Picture: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Published Jan 30, 2021

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By Shaun Smillie and Siyabonga Mkhwanazi

By early next week South Africa should receive its first batch of Covid-19 vaccines, but the concern is how effective they will be against the South African variant of the disease.

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For the last three months, the 501Y.V2 variant has been the driver behind the second Covid-19 wave that has ravaged the country.

It is slowly spreading across the globe, with the first reported case of the variant in the US announced on Thursday. Scientists are worried that the various vaccines being rolled out will not be as effective against this mutated virus.

On Monday South Africa is expected to receive delivery of a first consignment of AstraZeneca vaccines from the Serum Institute of India.

South Africa will get one million doses, with another set of 500 000 doses to be delivered later in February. If all goes to plan South Africa will become the second country on the continent to get vaccines; Morocco received the first batch of 2 million doses more than a week ago.

The government wants to inoculate 40 million people or 67% of the population by the end of the year.

But as the country prepares to begin its national inoculation programme, several biotech companies in recent days revealed that their vaccines were less effective against 501Y.V2.

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Yesterday, Johnson and Johnson announced the results of their phase-three trial of a single shot vaccine. In the US, according to a released statement, a single dose was 72% effective, in preventing moderate and severe illness. However, with the South African leg of the trial the effectiveness was found to have dropped to 57%, due to the variant.

"The problem we face when it comes to vaccines is that none of the vaccines were necessarily designed against the variant, in particular the part that the vaccine targets and that is the spike protein," said Wits University’s Professor Shabir Madhi, the lead investigator in the Novavax vaccine trial.

Late Thursday night Novavax released their findings, and Madhi told a press conference that their vaccine had an effectiveness of 60% against the local strain. This while the trial in the UK had an effectiveness of 89%.

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The Novavax study also showed that previous exposure to Covid-19 did not necessarily prevent reinfection by the 501Y.V2 variant.

“The 60% reduced risk against Covid-19 illness in vaccinated individuals in South Africans underscores the value of this vaccine to prevent illness from the highly worrisome variant currently circulating in South Africa, and which is spreading globally. This is the first Covid-19 vaccine for which we now have objective evidence that it protects against the variant dominating in South Africa,” said Madhi in a statement.

He added that Novavax was beginning to work on developing a vaccine that specifically targets the South African variant.

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While it is not known what the efficacy of the soon to arrive AstraZeneca vaccine is against the coronavirus variant, Bloomberg reported that the pharmaceutical company said they should know by next week. Studies were being done locally.

Political parties have backed the arrival of the first consignment of vaccines on Monday, saying they believe they will provide protection against the new variant.

The DA, IFP and Cope said they believed many people and healthcare workers would benefit from the vaccines.

DA national spokesperson and its spokesperson on health Siviwe Gwarube said yesterday scientists had been leading the process in fighting Covid-19.

She said they believed the vaccines would be able to fight the new variant.

“In terms of the variant, we have, from the beginning of the process, been led by science,” said Gwarube.

“Until we have scientific evidence that this vaccine is not effective, we need to get as many health workers as possible,” said Gwarube.

DA leader John Steenhuisen said yesterday they had lodged an urgent application in the Western Cape High Court to force the government to provide details on the roll-out of the vaccine.

IFP national spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa said they welcomed the arrival of the vaccines because it would intensify the fight against Covid-19.

He called on Mkhize to fight against any corruption in the supply of vaccines in the country.

He said they wanted many people who needed vaccines to access them.

“The IFP will closely monitor the implementation of the first phase of the vaccine roll-out process, to ensure fairness, and to ensure that those scheduled to receive their inoculations receive it,” said Hlengwa

Cope said they wanted the top politicians in the country to be the first to get vaccinated.

Dennis Bloem, the spokesperson for Cope, said there had not been guarantees how the vaccine would respond to the variant.

However, he said people should stick to what experts and scientists had been saying all along, that people must wear masks and follow other health protocols.

In their court application, Steenhuisen said the DA had been asking the government to provide this plan but it had failed and they were now heading to court.

“Today our lawyers made an urgent application to the Western Cape High Court to obtain a declarator that the government's conduct in procuring vaccines as well as its preparation for the roll-out of these vaccines are in violation of several constitutional principles. We asked the court to instruct the government to develop a comprehensive and co-ordinated vaccination roll-out plan, and to deliver this plan no later than one month of the order,” said Steenhuisen.

And while vaccines might not, for the moment, be as effective against the South African variant, Professor Glenda Gray, president and CEO South African Medical Research Council, stressed that it was still important to roll them out in the fight against the pandemic.

"Any country that is rolling out a vaccine needs to make sure they have real-time data on the impact of variants on their vaccine efficacy and the quicker we roll out vaccines the better chance we have got of controlling the epidemic and the emergence of new variants,” she said. “And if there are individual and public health benefits of a vaccine albeit reduced vaccine efficacy it behoves us to continue to roll out vaccines to get that benefit.”

The Saturday Star

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