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WHO to Review AstraZeneca Vaccine after South Africa Halts Vaccinations

A member of the medical staff administers the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to a colleague at the Foch hospital in Suresnes, near Paris, France, Feb. 8, 2021.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday it is reviewing the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in light of a South African study indicating the drug offers minimal protection against the new South Africa variant of the virus.

The study, conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand, prompted the South African government to temporarily halt its use of the vaccine.

At WHO’s usual Monday briefing at its headquarters in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the news concerning but noted what he called “some important caveats” to that development.

FILE - Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, speaks in Geneva, Jan. 21, 2021.
FILE - Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, speaks in Geneva, Jan. 21, 2021.

He said given the limited sample size of the Witwatersrand trial and the younger, healthier profile of the participants, it is important to determine whether the vaccine remains effective in preventing more severe illness.

Tedros said it is becoming increasingly clear that manufacturers will have to adjust to the evolution of the virus and consider altering their vaccines to address the variants, as is done with flu shots each year.

He said WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) met Monday to review the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. He said he would be meeting with them to discuss their recommendations.

Ebola death

Meanwhile, Tedros also said a new case of Ebola was reported Sunday near the city of Butembo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Butembo is in North Kivu province, where a previous outbreak last June was declared over. He said the female victim, the wife of an Ebola survivor, had died.

Tedros said WHO is supporting local and national authorities to trace those who had contact with the woman, and so far, more than 70 contacts have been identified, and no additional cases.

He warned, however, there could possibly be additional cases, because the woman had contact with many people after she became symptomatic. Vaccines are being sent to the area, as well as a WHO rapid response team.