South Africa has put the rollout of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on hold. Early scientific data released on Sunday revealed that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild disease for people infected with the second variant of the coronavirus discovered at the end of last year.
Last night, the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize announced that a team of experts would give guidance on the way forward with this vaccine. Clinical trial data from the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine study locally revealed that it had a 22% efficacy against the 501Y.V2 coronavirus variant.
Mkhize said that at the time that government acquired the vaccines, this clinical trial data had not been concluded.
“Those scientists must get together and quickly figure out what approach we’re going to use to effectively deploy the AstraZeneca vaccines,” he said.
Professor Shabir Madhi said that it was important to protect high-risk groups against severe forms of COVID-19 and death.
“I think it would be somewhat reckless of us to discard all the millions of dollars of vaccine that is available. There is a biological probability that these vaccines might still be useful in terms of protecting against severe disease.”
Experts say that across the board, vaccines have shown diminished efficacy against the second variant of the coronavirus. The national Health Department said that the first batch of the AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in the country with an April expiry date.
The country received the first batch of 1 million vaccines from the Serum Institute of India last week. Officials said that the vaccines’ expiry date was only picked up upon its arrival.
The department’s deputy director-general, Dr Anban Pillay, said that they were addressing the issue.
“We’ve engaged the Serum Institute for an extension of the date if that’s possible, or an exchange of the stock so that we can have vaccines with a longer expiry, so we’re just waiting for their response around that.”
Public health specialist, Kerrin Begg has explained the reason for the six-month expiry date on COVID-19 vaccines. She said that the only study dates available to the manufacturers covered the six-month period ending in April. She pointed out that once stability data for longer periods became available, expiry dates could be extended by manufacturers.