South Africa to apply J&J shots over AstraZeneca vaccine’s limited efficacy against new virus variant

*A fresh study reveals Johnson & Johnson vaccine shows more efficacy against South African strain, as AstraZeneca shot does not prevent mild disease from strain

Alexander Davis | ConsumerConnect

Following the trial that discovered that shot from Astra and the University of Oxford had only 22 percent efficacy against a new variant of the virus first identified in the country last year, South Africa will temporarily halt the rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccine and accelerate its supply of shots from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer Inc.

Shabir Madhi, lead researcher in the fresh study Sunday, February 7 said the South African arm of the trial discovered that the shot from Astra and the University of Oxford offered only 22 percent efficacy against mild and moderate illness, says agency report.

Madhi, however, said that there was no conclusive data showing whether the vaccine protects against severe illness, mainly because of the relative youth of the 2,000 trial participants in the country.

According to Madhi, “we need to recalibrate our expectations. The results are very much a reality check.”

The data has cast doubt over the usefulness of the Astra-Oxford shot, which was the first Coronavirus vaccine to arrive in the Southern African country recently, and due to be rolled out by mid-February to vaccinate health workers, report stated.

It was learnt 90 percent of new cases in the country have the more contagious B.1.351 variant, which has been found in at least 30 other countries worldwide.

Still, it would be “reckless” to dispose of the vaccine, which can be updated, Madhi said.

South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in a statement Monday said: “Our scientists must tell us what do we do with AstraZeneca and how quickly can we bring it back to stream.

“The plan is to find out from scientists on how to deal with this going forward.”

The government stated the J&J vaccine is approved for study use in South Africa, and will now be deployed to inoculate health staff “as part of a research project”.

Scientists and governments globally are wrestling with a growing number of mutations of COVID-19, taking steps to tweak the current flock of vaccines to create booster shots that could be used later this year to ensure continued protection beyond initial vaccination.

Meanwhile, Sarah Gilbert, who led the team that created the Oxford-Astra vaccine, also Sunday that work was already underway to adapt the vaccine to deal specifically with the South African variant, with plans for it to be available by autumn.

From the trial of about 2,000 participants, investigators were able to analye data from 1,749 volunteers, all aged 18 to 65 with a median age of 31, according to the data presented by Madhi.

About 68% of volunteers were of black African descent, 14% were white and 16% mixed race.

In connection with Severe COVID-19, the team leader said that due to the age of the participants and low prevalence of underlying health conditions making them less likely to have a serious case of COVID-19, “the study was not really designed to determine whether a vaccine would protect against severe COVID or not.”

If the vaccine does protect against severe disease and hospitalisation, it could still be key to helping prevent deaths and health systems from becoming overrun, report noted.

Authorities plan to accelerate the arrival of other products to vaccinate health workers, according to Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council.

The government has secured nine million doses from Johnson & Johnson and 20 million doses from Pfizer Inc., which were expected to arrive from June and May 2020 respectively.

Vaccines for health workers from both drugmakers should now arrive within four weeks, according to Health Minister Mkhize.

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