AstraZeneca Study Lead Tells South Africa Not to Be Reckless

The lead researcher of the South African trial of AstraZeneca Plc’s coronavirus vaccine urged authorities in the country to continue using the shot to cut death and hospitalization rates and the chance of further virus mutations.

Early data of a small phase trial published Sunday showed that AstraZeneca’s vaccine has limited efficacy against mild disease caused by the B.1.351 variant that’s now dominant in South Africa, prompting the government to suspend plans to give it to health workers. The study didn’t determine whether it protects against severe Covid-19 cases and deaths because most participants were “young healthy adults,” according to the company.

Still, the shot that’s been purchased by many African countries has a high likelihood of preventing severe disease and shouldn’t be discarded, Shabir Madhi said in a webinar hosted by the Daily Maverick news site on Tuesday. The World Health Organization has advocated continued use of the vaccine.

“If South Africa becomes reckless in terms of the manner in which it deals with the AstraZeneca vaccine, it’s going to have global repercussions,” Madhi said. “The AstraZeneca vaccine is the cheapest vaccine that’s going to be available to lower- and middle-income countries.”

AstraZeneca has pledged significant supplies to Covax, an initiative designed to distribute vaccines equitably across the globe.

“The toss-up is going to be between no vaccine or a vaccine that’s got a high likelihood of preventing severe disease and death,” Madhi said. South Africa should give the shot to people at high risk of severe disease, hospitalization or death because of their age or medical conditions, he said.

South Africa is the country hardest hit by the virus in Africa with almost 1.5 million confirmed infections and 46,869 deaths.

The government will instead enroll health workers in a study so that they can get quick access to Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters Wednesday. Studies are still taking place to decide what to do with Astra’s shots, he said.

30% Infection

New variants -- including those found in South Africa and Brazil -- were probably caused by large infection rates at the beginning of the pandemic, according to Madhi, who’s also a professor of vaccinology at the University of The Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. As many people became naturally immune due to earlier infections, the virus mutated to survive. In South Africa, as many as 30% of adults may have been infected during the first wave of Covid-19, he said.

That’s why vaccination campaigns should be rolled out as quickly as possible, even as attaining so-called herd immunity will be difficult, he said.

“When it comes to vaccines, we are probably going to face the same scenario when there is a sluggish roll out,” he said. “What we are trying to achieve is a targeted approach in terms of protecting lives and preventing our health care facilities from becoming overburdened.”

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