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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

Govt could not have predicted virus becoming resistant to vaccine – professor

The AstraZeneca vaccine is said to be less effective against the SA variant.

With South Africa having halted the planned roll-out of its one million doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine following the emergence of new scientific evidence pointing to the Indian-manufactured drug’s weak efficacy to fight the disease caused by the more contagious coronavirus variant, top virologists on Monday pinned their hopes on the use of a wide-range of stronger jabs – not ruling out the Russian Sputnik V.

Against a background of over a million recorded cases, the vaccination delay has come as a blow to the country’s efforts to combat the epidemic, in the wake of the AstraZeneca vaccine delivery in SA a week ago.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize over the weekend announced that the countrywide release of AstraZeneca would be stopped after scientists found it failed to protect clinical trial volunteers against the new virus strain.

ALSO READ: ‘We can still use AstraZeneca vaccine, but the clock is ticking’ – expert

The roll-out would have seen front-line health workers being the first to be inoculated, with the delay having pushed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Covid-19 National Command Council (NCCC) and scientists back to the drawing board.

Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand and chief investigator on the new study, said before SA was hit by the new coronavirus strain, AstraZeneca reduced mild cases of the disease by 75%.

But with the new strain, the vaccine efficacy dropped to 22% based on 42 of symptomatic Covid-19 cases.

Madhi has been quick to dispel as untrue any criticism that government was responsible for the situation in which the country found itself on the delay in rolling out the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Criticism of the Ramaphosa administration on the AstraZeneca vaccine debacle was “unwarranted”, with no government in the world being able to predict the future trend of a virus becoming resistant to the vaccine.

Epidemiologist Dr Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19, conceded that the AstraZeneca vaccine roll-out had to be halted while new information on its clinical efficacy was being investigated.

READ MORE: EFF on Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine: We warned you

MAC vaccines chair and Wits University emeritus professor of virology Barry Schoub, said: “As professor Madhi said during the announcement, perhaps the AstraZeneca vaccine could be used to prevent hospitalisation and mortality.

“There may be a role for it in that aspect, which still has to be determined. As you can see, the roll-out of vaccines is going to be delayed by a couple of weeks.

“We are in an unfortunate and unpredictable situation because of the lack of a vaccine which is efficacious to the virus.

“The AstraZeneca vaccine has not turned out to be efficacious – leading to a short delay in the roll-out. We are still investigating how the AstraZeneca vaccine can be useful in our situation.

“At this stage, we can only echo what the minister said at the briefing in terms of the vaccine’s arrival in the country, which is by the end of the month.

“The vaccine has now been suspended pending further investigations and has been replaced by other vaccines – the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer/BioNTech ones – which do work in our situation to fight the variants.”

Commenting on Russia’s Sputnik V, Schoub said: “It is certainly on our radar following the data that has been published by the Lancet medical journal.”

– brians@citizen.co.za

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