Cape Town - The rollout of AstraZeneca vaccine which had been scheduled to begin in South Africa this month is now on temporary hold, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Sunday.
Mkhize said the roll-out will be put on hold until a committee of scientists have decided the way forward after data showed the vaccine gave minimal protection against mild-to-moderate infection caused by the country's dominant coronavirus variant.
“So it’s a temporary issue that we have to hold onto the AstraZeneca. It is temporary until we figure out these issues, what is the next step supposed to be, when we know those steps, then of course we bring it back.”
The government had intended to roll the AstraZeneca shot out to healthcare workers soon, after receiving 1 million doses produced by the Serum Institute of India on Monday.
Instead, it will offer vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer in the coming weeks while experts consider how the AstraZeneca shot can be deployed.
"What does that mean for our vaccination programme which we said will start in February? The answer is it will proceed," Mkhize told an online news briefing.
"From next week for the next four weeks we expect that there will be J&J vaccines, there will be Pfizer vaccines. So what will be available to the health workers will be those vaccines."
"The AstraZeneca vaccine will remain with us ... up until the scientists give us clear indications as to what we need to do," he added.
Wits Professor Shabir Madhi told a media briefing on Sunday that results from the trials show that the AstraZeneca vaccine was less effective against mild and moderate forms of the B.1.351 coronavirus variant first identified in the country. He said it was “disappointing” and a reality check.
Madhi said the recruitment of the over 2000 participants started towards the end of the first wave, but while the study was under way the new variant started spreading in the country -especially in the Eastern Cape and became a dominant part of the second wave of the pandemic.
Madhi said evidence collected showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine was less effective against the new variant. Before October 31, when the trial began – results showed promise and the likelihood of protecting against mild cases of the virus. Results had shown that the vaccine was 75% effective with a single dose in 14 days. These same results could not be replicated based on the new variant.
He said the question of whether the AstraZeneca vaccine would be effective against severe forms of the virus had not been answered as the study did not aim to answer that question. A larger study would be needed, Mahdi said.
He said had the virus not mutated, the results would have been promising.
Madhi said it was not all “doom and gloom” as vaccines like the one-dose vaccine offered by Johnson & Johnson offered more promising effectiveness against the SA variant and severe forms of the virus.
Professor Glenda Gray agreed that early results from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were more promising and the vaccine could be a “silver bullet”.
The single-dose vaccine was shown to be 85 percent effective in preventing severe disease and death in the 501Y.V2 variant.
“We are in advanced discussions to further evaluate the single shot Covid vaccine in South Africa in an accelerated manner,” said Gray.
Mkhize told members of the health portfolio committee on Friday that the country would be getting 9 million doses from Johnson & Johnson, 20 million from Pfizer and 12 million from the Covax facility.
On Sunday Professor Salim Abdool Karim said that it would be "somewhat reckless" to discard the 1 million AstraZeneca doses the country had received when there was still a chance they could protect against severe Covid-19.
Anban Pillay, health ministry deputy director-general, said the expiry date on the AstraZeneca doses was in April, but the government was speaking to the SII to seek an extension or exchange.
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 were already working to update the vaccine to deal with the South African variant, which has been spreading rapidly around the world.
* Additional reporting by Reuters and AFP