After some concerns emerged around the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the South African authorities decided to sell their 1.5 million doses to African countries who expressed an interest in getting them.
Efficacy concerns from a small study
South Africa had secured 1.5 million doses of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine for its population.
A month ago, the medicine flew from the Serum Institute of India and a batch of 1 million vaccines were received by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize themselves. The country expected another delivery of 500,000 doses.
Those were supposed to be administered to healthcare and front-line workers in priority.
But that was before concerns emerged about its efficacy on the variant from South Africa.
A small study led by the university of Witwatersrand of Johannesburg pointed out that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had limited efficacy against mild and moderate symptoms caused by the dominant variant in the country.
Trials were conducted on 2,000 people with a median age of 31. The preliminary results released on February 7 were not peer-reviewed yet. Moreover, the efficacy was not tested on severe forms of the B.1.351 variant due to the small sample size. "Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalization or death could not be assessed in this study as the target population was at low risk."
On February 10, 2021, the WHO issued interim guidance and recommended the use of the vaccine "even if variants are present in a country".
Yet, South Africa decided not to use it at all.
African countries interested in the vaccine
The Health Minister then told the parliament that the doses would be offered to members of the African Union that show an interest in the stock.
Some African countries are indeed less affected by the variant from South Africa and are not wary of benefiting from the vaccine's protections.
Sarah Gilbert, Professor of vaccinology at the university of Oxford, told the BBC they are working on a new version of the vaccine that "generates antibodies that recognize the new variant". "It looks very much likely it will be ready to use at the of the autumn". She also believed the current version offered some protection to the variant from South Africa.
On March 21, 2021, the country stated that the first batch had been bought by 9 member states of the AU. The balance will be sold to 5 other countries.
The South African government assured the expiration date wasn't over yet. According to News24, the country was going to sell the vaccine at the same price it bought it.
As a precaution, several European Union members have recently paused the rollout of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine for a few days due to concerns around blood coagulation disorders. They resumed the inoculations few days later but led to reducing trust in the vaccine safety.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Cameroon had also suspended the rollout of shots in light of the EU decision.
South Africa is the country the most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa with 1.54 million reported cases and 52,000 reported deaths.
Media sources and useful links:
- Oxford Covid-19 vaccine trial results, February 2021, Wits university, Free access
- Covid: Oxford jab offers less S Africa variant protection, February 2021, BBC, Free access
- Interim recommendations for use of the vaccine against COVID19 developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, February 2021, WHO, Free access
- SONA 2021 debate | Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, eNCA, February 2021, Free access
- Statement from Dr Zewli Mkhize, South Africa Minister of Health, Twitter, March 2021, Free access