A World Health Organization panel (WHO) of experts has recommended the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in settings where variants of the coronavirus are circulating.
The announcement on Wednesday came days after a small-scale study showed that the jab had a far lower efficacy against mild and moderate diseases caused by a new variant first detected in South Africa.
“Even if there is a reduction in the possibility of these vaccines having a full impact in [their] protection capacity, there is no reason not to use the AstraZeneca vaccine” to reduce the level of severe disease in a country’s population, said Alejandro Cravioto, chairman of the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE).
Presenting its interim recommendations over the use of the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and drugmaker AstraZeneca, the panel also said the shot could be used “in persons aged 65 years and older”.
Several European countries have expressed reservations about the vaccine’s efficacy on older people and said they would not administer it to those above 65.
The experts noted that the results of the study only showed limited effectiveness against mild forms of COVID-19, but that there was no evidence that the vaccine does not protect against severe disease. The panel therefore recommended the use of the product “even if variants are present in a country”.
It added, however, that there is an “urgent need for a coordinated approach for surveillance and evaluation of variants and their potential impact on vaccine effectiveness”.
Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, stressed that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is one of the main suppliers of COVAX – an international mechanism set up to enable lower-income countries to buy vaccines.
The jab “can be useful for a large number of countries”, said Swaminathan, pointing to the fact that it can be stored in ordinary refrigerators. By contrast, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines need to be kept at ultracold temperature.
SAGE experts also recommended an interval of eight to 12 weeks between the first and the second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to improve efficacy.
The WHO also said the vaccine was in the final stages of review for the UN agency’s emergency-use listing and could receive approval by mid-February.
“We hope this will be followed very soon by the emergency-use listing of this product,” Swaminathan told the briefing.
Asked why the WHO was pushing ahead with recommendations on using the vaccine even before much-anticipated data from a large clinical trial of the shot in the United States, Cravioto said the US data was “not expected until into March”.
“We have thousands of people dying from the infection, in many countries of the world, daily,” he said.
“Anything we can do to use a product that might reduce that is totally justified, even if the information … is not [as] complete as we like.”