There was bad news for South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine roll-out last night. And some very good news too.
At a briefing hosted by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, leading vaccinologist Professor Sabhir Madhi of Wits University confirmed the news that had been reported earlier in the weekend: the exisiting AstraZeneca vaccine, of which South Africa already has one million doses ready to be rolled out to health workers, is ineffective against the 501Y.V2 variant of the virus present in the country.
Madhi explained that the vaccine, in a small study in South Africa, had been effective in preventing infections until the end of October. However, after that date, the variant emerged and the vaccine was no longer effective. Also ineffective are antibodies developed by people who were infected during the first wave of the pandemic.
The findings mean that the programme to vaccinate healthcare workers will no longer start with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine delivered by the Serum Institute of India last week.
However, there was much better news from Professor Glenda Gray, who was involved with a widescale study of the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson — and set to be manufactured by Aspen Pharmacare in the Eastern Cape. This vaccine is effective at preventing severe illness and death, beginning just 14 days after the dose is administered.
This vaccine still needs to be approved for use in South Africa, and this will be expedited.
It will be used to start vaccinating health staff while the usefulness of the AstraZeneca vaccine is investigated.
The Daily Maverick, which reported on the disappointing news earlier on Sunday, also revealed that the vaccines supplied last week are due to expire by the end of April.
Responding to this issue at last night’s briefing, Dr Anban PiIllay, the Health Department official co-ordinating vaccine acquisition, confirmed that the government will engage with the SII about this.
Madhi told Maverick Citizen on Sunday: “The results from this study are disappointing in this vaccine not protecting against mainly mild and some moderate illness. In all likelihood, other first generation Covid vaccines are likely to also show diminished efficacy against the [South Africa] variant.
“Also, there are compelling ongoing lab studies that show even the mRNA vaccines will have reduced effectiveness against [new] variants ... Nevertheless, based on the findings of the J&J vaccine, which uses the same technology and has similar immunogenicity to the AZ vaccine, this vaccine may still provide protection against severe disease and death — with an 85% efficacy observed for the J&J study.”
The mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna use different technology to elicit an immune response. South Africa has signed deals to receive doses of these as well.
Mkhize stressed that health workers are not being treated as guinea pigs in being given the J&J vaccine.
He said the vaccine is safe and effective, and while the roll-out will help the government and scientists understand its overall effectiveness, no one will be given a placebo, and therefore everyone who receives the vaccine will be protected against severe illness and death, a point emphasised by Gray.
Madhi said Covid-19 will likely not be eradicated, even with effective vaccines, and it will remain an illness the world has to deal with.
He told Maverick Citizen: “The findings also suggest as a global community, we need to recalibrate our thinking around the pandemic and expectations of Covid vaccines.”
He pointed out last night that other coronaviruses — which cause common colds — do not cause severe illness and the hope is that the virus that causes Covid-19 can be similarly contained.