South Africa to pass along its AstraZeneca vaccine after a disappointing result against its variant

By Lynsey Chutel

South Africa will share its unused doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine with the African Union, the country’s health minister said Tuesday.

South Africa, which had bought 1.5 million doses of the vaccine, decided to pause plans to distribute it this month after a small trial failed to show that it could prevent mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 caused by the worrisome variant that has overrun the country.

“The AstraZeneca doses which we purchased have been offered to the African Union platform, which we are part of, and they will be distributed to the countries that have already indicated interest that do not have this particular challenge of this variant,” the country’s health minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize, told the Parliament. “There will therefore be no wasteful and fruitless expenditure.”

South Africa’s decision not to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, at least for now, highlights the difficult choices countries will face as more variants circulate even as vaccine shortages abound in many places. The vaccine was the only one approved in the country, and the news about the disappointing trial results came just days before its much-anticipated rollout had been set to begin.

The scientists involved in the South African study said that they believed the AstraZeneca vaccine might still protect against more severe cases caused by the virus variant, based on the immune responses detected in blood samples from people who were given it. The health minister has asked for further study.

A World Health Organization panel of experts recently recommended that the AstraZeneca vaccine be used in countries where concerning new variants of the coronavirus are circulating, cautioning that it was difficult to draw firm conclusions from such preliminary data. But the panel also said that each country should take into account the state of the virus and the type of variants spreading there in deciding which vaccines to use.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is cheap and easy to store, and is considered especially important for lower- and middle-income countries around the world, which have generally lost out to wealthier countries in a global rush for vaccines.

Instead of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, South Africa was planning to inoculate tens of thousands of health workers with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which prevented hospitalizations and deaths in clinical trials in the country. Those shots are expected to be given on a trial basis while the nation works through the formal approval process for that vaccine.

The ministry did not say whether the African Union would be buying the doses, accepting them as a donation, or exchanging them for an alternative. The regional body declined to comment.

Mkhize also rejected a report from an Indian newspaper, The Economic Times, that South Africa had asked the manufacturer of its doses, the Serum Institute of India, to take them back.

“We also want to refute categorically the speculation in the media that we have returned the stock to India. We have not,” said the health minister.

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