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South Africa Scraps AstraZeneca; WHO Okays Vaccine's Emergency Use for Other Countries

Asnath Masango, gives a patient a COVID-19 test at the Ndlovu clinic in Elandsdoorn, 200 kms north-east of Johannesburg Thursday Feb. 11, 2021. The center is running a study of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

Africa’s viral epicenter, South Africa, confirmed Tuesday that it is jettisoning plans to use the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine and will switch to a different one. That announcement came a day after the vaccine, which is the leading choice for the developing world, was cleared for emergency use authorization from the World Health Organization.

“Today, WHO gave emergency use listing to two versions of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, giving the green light for these vaccines to be rolled out globally through COVAX,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said to journalists Monday. COVAX is the global mechanism that aims to deliver coronavirus vaccines to poor countries. The coronavirus causes the COVID-19 disease.

“…. WHO emergency use listing assesses and assures the quality, safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, and is a prerequisite for vaccines to be distributed by COVAX. This listing was completed in just under four weeks from the time WHO received the full dossiers from the manufacturers,” he said.

But South Africa’s experience with this promising vaccine has been far from smooth, or encouraging. The nation carries the bulk of the continent’s cases, with 1.49 million confirmed cases, and 48,000 deaths.

Earlier this month, South Africa received 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, at a price of just over $5 (R78) each. That is nearly three times the amount that EU members are paying for the same vaccine, according to information leaked by European officials.

When the vaccine arrived, on a rainy February day, South African officials were also startled to discover that this batch of vaccines -- which has a six-month storage life -- was set to expire in April. That discovery was followed by the announcement that a study conducted in South Africa found that this vaccine is not totally effective against the highly contagious variant prevalent in South Africa.

And so, on Tuesday, South African health officials announced that they would receive a shipment of 80,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and begin inoculating health workers on Wednesday. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told local media that another 420,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would land in the next four weeks, along with another 20 million doses of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine. The nation plans to inoculate 40 million people -- about 67 percent of the population.

South African authorities said Tuesday that first in line for the shot Wednesday would be front-line health care workers at public and private clinics.

And what of that huge stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines? On Tuesday, the deputy health minister denied reports that the government has asked the manufacturer to take back all 1 million doses. South Africa will reportedly try to trade them with countries that do not have high incidences of the variant, known as B1.351 or 501Y.V2.

Dr. Kate O’Brien, the WHO’s director of immunization, vaccines and biologicals, said this vaccine may still prove useful elsewhere.

“Countries remain enthusiastic about receiving the AstraZeneca product, while at the same time asking very relevant questions about what the evidence shows and what the evidence doesn't show,” she said. “And I'll just reinforce that there is no evidence on whether or not the AstraZeneca product against the B1.351 variant has any change, or if that change in the vaccine efficacy is of a substantial change, and there are plausible reasons why we think that there will retain activity against severe disease.”