Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said South Africa would switch to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and, at least for now, not use Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – which is considered one of the most promising for developing countries because it is cheaper and does not require freezer storage like some other leading vaccines .
The world is closely watching South Africa’s vaccination strategy as there are growing concerns that new variants – not just the one first discovered here – may dodge vaccines, making it more difficult to end the pandemic for good. The variant now prevalent in South Africa is more contagious, experts say, and has recently led to a devastating revival of cases.
A small study that indicated that the AstraZeneca vaccine couldn’t prevent mild to moderate illnesses caused by this variant messed up the country’s vaccination campaign this week when it was just beginning. Experts say the vaccine – the only one approved for general use in South Africa – can still prevent serious diseases.
However, officials quickly focused on the unique J&J vaccine, which was only approved for studies in South Africa and not approved for general use in any country. The company has filed for emergency approval with the US Food and Drug Administration and the South African regulator.
A clinical study of the vaccine in South Africa that was part of international studies showed that it was 57% effective in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 in a test done when the variant was dominant. It offers even better protection against serious illnesses with an effectiveness of 85% after 28 days.
But a nurse at a Soweto hospital said the move made him and some of his colleagues feel like “guinea pigs”.
“I think what happened to the AstraZeneca vaccine undermined the confidence we had in the government to run an adequate vaccination program,” said Sipho Dinabantu, who works at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. “We received assurances that it was ready for use, but it has now been put on hold. I am very surprised about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has yet to be approved. “
A leading vaccine specialist, Professor Willem Hanekom, praised the government’s swift action.
“It was the right decision to switch to a vaccine that was shown in South Africa to protect against the new variant that is in circulation here,” said Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute. “The whole situation is unprecedented. We have never been in such a situation. Every day things change and we have to adapt to those changes. “
South Africa will begin administering the first shots next week, Mkhize said. The first doses are from vaccines sent into the country for testing, and more are expected in March when a South African pharmaceutical company here starts filling the vaccine, he said before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.
Overall, the country hopes to vaccinate an estimated 40 million people by the end of the year – that’s about two-thirds of its population. South Africa is also planning to use the Pfizer vaccine – though it’s not yet approved – and is considering others, including Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s Sinopharm and the Moderna vaccine, Mkhize said. In contrast to the J&J shot, none of these vaccines have been clinically tested against the variant predominant in South Africa, although Pfizer tested blood samples from people exposed to the variant.
The change of course came just a week after South Africa received its first vaccines – 1 million doses of AstraZeneca made by the Serum Institute of India. After the results of the preliminary study, which was not peer-reviewed, were announced on Sunday, South African officials quickly halted the planned rollout.
Mkhize said scientists were still debating what to do with the AstraZeneca cans, and one option was for them to be swapped for a different type; One expert also suggested they could be used in a study. However, an added complication is that the recordings have an expiration date of April 30th.
South Africa’s sudden move could diminish the enthusiasm for the vaccine that had given hope to many poorer countries as it is manufactured in large quantities in India and bought in large numbers by the international COVAX facility for worldwide distribution.
But Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist of the World Health Organization, said people shouldn’t conclude from South Africa’s decision that the AstraZeneca vaccine isn’t working. She said all the evidence available so far shows that the vaccines developed so far reduce deaths, hospitalizations and serious illnesses. In fact, independent experts who advised WHO on Wednesday recommended the use of the vaccine, even in countries with variants.
South Africa has by far the largest number of COVID-19 cases on the African continent with nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases, including nearly 47,000 deaths. After a resurgence that started in early January, cases and deaths are now falling, but medical experts are already warning that South Africa should prepare for another upturn in May or June, the start of winter in the southern hemisphere.
Associate Press Journalists Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg; Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa; Danica Kirka in London; and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this.
Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.