London: Early data from a new small-scale Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine study suggests the jab offers only “minimal protection” against the so-called South African coronavirus variant.
South Africa said it will suspend use of the AstraZeneca shot after data showed it gave minimal protection against the country’s dominant coronavirus variant.
The study from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford University showed the vaccine had significantly reduced efficacy against the South African variant.
A dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine being prepared.Credit:AP
Health officials in Britain are trying to contain the spread of the variant amid concerns that it is more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines. More than 100 cases of the South African variant have been found in the UK.
Oxford researchers expect to have a modified jab to cope with the variant later in the year, the vaccine’s lead researcher said on Sunday.
“We have a version with the South African spike sequence in the works,” Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher for the Oxford team, told the BBC on Sunday.
“It looks very likely that we can have a new version ready to use in the (European) autumn.”
The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, involved 2000 people, most of whom were young and healthy. The volunteers’ average age was 31.
“In this small phase I/II trial, early data has shown limited efficacy against mild disease primarily due to the B.1.351 South African variant,” an AstraZeneca spokesman said in response to a report in the Financial Times.
AstraZeneca said it believed its vaccine could still protect against severe disease, given that the neutralising antibody activity was equivalent to that of other COVID-19 vaccines that have demonstrated protection against severe disease.
“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 delivery should it be needed,” a spokesperson for the company said.
The study only ascertained efficacy against mild disease due to the makeup of the cohort.
“Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalisation or death could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk,” Oxford University said.
Among coronavirus variants, currently most concerning for scientists and public health experts are the so-called British, South African and Brazilian variants, which appear to spread more swiftly than others.
On Friday, Oxford said their vaccine has similar efficacy against the British coronavirus variant as it does to the previously circulating variants.
Robin Shattock, a scientist who is leading the coronavirus vaccine research at Imperial College London, urged caution about the study’s early findings, but he said it was “concerning to some extent that we’re seeing that it’s not effective against mild or moderate disease.”
Authorities in England last week went house-to-house to administer COVID-19 testing in eight areas where the South Africa variant is believed to be spreading, after a handful of cases were found in people who had no contact with the country or anyone who travelled there.
The testing blitz is a bid to snuff out the variant before it spreads widely and undermines the UK’s vaccination rollout. Public health officials are concerned about the South Africa variant because it contains a mutation of the virus’ characteristic spike protein, which is targeted by existing vaccines.
A COVID-19 booster followed by annual vaccinations were very probable, England’s vaccine deployment minister, Nadhim Zahawi, told the BBC.
The UK has already injected over 12 million first doses of COVID-19 vaccines and is on track to meet a target to vaccinate everyone in the top most vulnerable groups by mid-February.
Britain has seen Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with over 112,000 confirmed deaths, but it has embarked on a speedier vaccination plan than the neighbouring European Union.
South Africa said it will suspend use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot in its vaccination programme after data showed it gave minimal protection against mild to moderate infection caused by the country’s dominant coronavirus variant.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Sunday the government would await advice from scientists on how best to proceed, after disappointing results in a trial conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand.
The government had intended to roll the AstraZeneca shot out to healthcare workers soon, after receiving 1 million doses produced by the Serum Institute of India on Monday.
Instead, it will offer vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer in the coming weeks while experts consider how the AstraZeneca shot can be deployed.
“What does that mean for our vaccination programme which we said will start in February? The answer is it will proceed,” Mkhize told an online news briefing.
“From next week for the next four weeks we expect that there will be J&J vaccines, there will be Pfizer vaccines. So what will be available to the health workers will be those vaccines.”
“The AstraZeneca vaccine will remain with us … up until the scientists give us clear indications as to what we need to do,” he added.
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