South Africa is considering trading its doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine and beginning its inoculation campaign with Johnson & Johnson shots instead, the health minister said.
The country, worst-hit by the pandemic in Africa, has suspended its vaccine roll-out that was due to begin with Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine this week after a study found the jab failed to prevent mild and moderate illness caused by a variant discovered in South Africa dubbed 501Y.V2.
The vaccination delay has set back an ambitious plan to inoculate about 40 million people – 67 percent of the population – by the end of 2021.
“Given the outcomes of the efficacy studies [the government] will continue with the planned phase one vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines instead of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a press briefing on Wednesday.
“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant.”
He did not say when immunisation would begin.
Officials are also deciding on the fate of more than one million Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines already secured from the Serum Institute of India (SII) and set to expire at the end of April, though that date could potentially be adjusted.
Mkhize pointed at several options, including selling or swapping the doses with countries tackling the original coronavirus strain.
“Depending on their advice, the vaccine will be swapped before the expiry date,” he said, adding that “there are already countries who are asking to sell it to them”.
“Our scientists will continue with further deliberations on the AstraZeneca vaccine use in South Africa,” Mkhize explained.
Local vaccine production
South Africa was slow to catch on to the global vaccine scramble and received its first jabs, one million AstraZeneca shots, only on February 1.
An additional 500,000 doses have been bought from the SII and are due to be delivered this month
Mkhize said the government’s Ministerial Advisory Committee should be able to give a considered view on how to deal with the AstraZeneca vaccines in the next week or two, adding that the government had also secured vaccine doses from Pfizer for health workers.
Negotiations with Moderna, China’s Sinopharm and over Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine are continuing.
Officials previously said the country had secured nine million J&J single-dose shots, and Mkhize said a deal could be finalised soon.
The J&J vaccine was 89 percent effective at preventing severe disease and 57 percent effective against moderate to severe disease in the South African leg of a global trial.
Ninety-five percent of infections observed in the local study were due to the 501Y.V2 variant first identified late last year.
The 501Y.V2 variant has alarmed health experts who have raised concerns about its ability to potentially evade the immune response generated by prior exposure to the coronavirus or vaccines.
South Africa’s neighbour eSwatini, earlier known as Swaziland, also said on Tuesday that it would not be using the AstraZeneca vaccine.