South Africa has suspended its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to healthcare staff, after results from a study suggested that it was not effective against mild illness caused by the South African variant of Covid-19.
The country had received its first one million doses of the vaccine at the end of January, with plans to roll it out to frontline health workers from the middle of February.
These plans have now been suspended, as preliminary research found that the vaccine offers only minimal protection against mild to moderate disease from the variant.
The South African variant study comes after research was released which indicated that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is still effective at fighting against the new UK Covid-19 mutation.
The small study is yet to be peer reviewed, and involved around 2,000 people in South Africa with an average age of 31.
‘Still effective in preventing severe disease’
Researchers believe that the vaccine is still effective in preventing severe disease, hospital admissions and death, and also continues to work well against the original strain of the virus.
A spokesperson for AstraZeneca said: “We do believe our vaccine will still protect against severe disease, as neutralising antibody activity is equivalent to other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimised to eight to 12 weeks.”
The AstraZeneca spokesperson also added that other immune responses, such as T cell responses, may have a role in protecting against the virus, and initial data suggests that these may stay the same with the variant.
‘We won’t be seeing deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease’
Lead researcher in the Oxford team, Professor Sarah Gilbert, said that the current vaccines “have a reduction in efficacy against some of the variant viruses”.
She added: “What that is looking like is that we may not be reducing the total number of cases, but there’s still protection in that case against deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.”
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Gilbert said: “Maybe we won’t be reducing the number of cases as much, but we still won’t be seeing the deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.
“That’s really important for healthcare systems, even if we are having mild and asymptomatic infections, to prevent people going into hospital with Covid would have a major effect.”
Oxford University also said that the study did not assess protection against moderate to severe disease, hospital admission or death, because the target population were at such low risk.
Oxford vaccine could be useful for other age groups
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, head of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19, said the Oxford study could not show that the vaccine is effective against all levels of seriousness of the South African variant.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he commented: “What the study really tells us is that, in a relatively young age group demographic - with very low prevalence of morbidities such as hypertension and diabetes etc - the vaccine does not protect against mild to moderate infection.”
The professor explained that its effectiveness against serious infection could possibly be “extrapolated” based on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses “similar technology” to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, and has similar immune effects.
“Extrapolating from that, there’s still some hope that the AstraZeneca vaccine might well perform as well as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a different age demographic that are at highest risk of severe disease,” he said.
‘147 confirmed cases in the UK’
Health Minister Edward Argar said that there have been 147 confirmed cases of the South African variant of Covid-19 in the UK, but added that his figures may be “a day or so out”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Argar said: “The latest figures I have, which may be a day or so out, is 147 cases in this country.
“So, it’s very much not the dominant strain here, the dominant strain here is very much the historic one, the one we’ve been dealing with since last year, and to a large degree the so-called Kent variant.”
Virus variants could mean annual booster jabs
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said he and Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, have agreed that there will likely be a follow up Covid jab programme later in the year.
Talking to BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, Zahawi said: “We see very much probably an annual or booster in the autumn and then an annual [jab], in the way we do with flu vaccinations where you look at what variant of the virus is spreading around the world, rapidly produce a variant of the vaccine and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation.”
Professor Gilbert said that her team is working on an adapted version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that could fight against the South African mutation. She claimed it could be “available for the autumn”.
She explained: “This year we expect to show that the new version of the vaccine will generate antibodies that recognise the new variant.
“Then it will be very much like working on flu vaccines. It looks very much like it will be available for the autumn.”