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Last updated on Jun 23rd, 2021 at 12:53 pm

On Sunday evening, South African Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize and a panel of leading experts hosted a media briefing about the country’s vaccine rollout programme.

After much fanfare last week when the million doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine touched down on SA soil, the country has been thrown another curveball. The vaccine may not be as effective as we’d hoped. The million doses that arrived from India last week also expire in April this year – a worrying  deadline for the rollout plan.

However, the most disturbing finding is that the efficacy of the vaccine against the mutated COVID-19 501Y.V2 variant – which is predominant in South Africa – has not been proven in recent studies.

The media briefing focussed on the findings of experts, and how the government would be responding to these findings.

Clinical trial disappointing

One of the experts involved was Professor Shabir Madhi, who led the clinical trial of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate locally.

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The study in SA was rolled out to 2000 participants, aged between 18 and 65 years old. According to Madhi, the vaccine originally showed “tremendous potential” against the initial Covid-19 variant. Sadly, the second variant is more resilient against the vaccine.

“Much of the antibody induced by the vaccine was not actually active against the variant circulating in SA,” Madhi concluded.

The vaccine is particularly ineffective against mild and moderate cases of Covid-19. The efficacy does, however, increase as the severity of the case increases.


According to a report by Reuters, an AstraZeneca spokesman said the: “Oxford University and AstraZeneca have started adapting the vaccine against this variant and will advance rapidly through clinical development so that it is ready for autumn delivery should it be needed.”



Don’t panic

According to Professor Salim Abdool Karim, one of South Africa’s leading COVID-19 experts, these findings do not spell “doom and gloom”.

Karim said that vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna seem to do “reasonably well” against the 501Y.V2 variant, even with their neutralising activity diminished. He said the Sinopharm vaccine also shows a small reduction in efficacy, about 1.5 fold.

However, he says, there is hope that the Johnson&Johnson vaccine will show a smaller decline in efficacy against the variant, making it a plausible choice for rollout.

“COVID vaccines remain effective against existing variants. The next set of vaccines will be made from the 501Y.V2 variant and so they are likely to be effective against the 501Y.V2 variant. We are expecting two kinds of vaccines: the first are 501Y.V2 boosters and we have already heard about the good progress they are making on these boosters,” he said.

SA rollout placed on hold, alternative vaccine should be distributed for healthcare workers

Karim says the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccines which have already landed will need to be put on a temporary hold.

“We can still proceed with our rollout but we need to do it wisely by taking a stepped approach,” he said.

Instead, the government plans to expedite the rollout of the Johnson&Johnson vaccine for healthcare workers.

South Africans were fuming at the news – “We can’t afford to wait longer!”


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