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AstraZeneca vaccine has major role to play, South Africa trial lead says

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The lead investigator on the South African trial of AstraZeneca’s vaccine said he believed it had a major role to play in Africa and globally, despite data showing the vaccine offered minimal protection against mild-to-moderate COVID-19 disease caused by the country’s dominant virus variant.

FILE PHOTO: The AstraZeneca logo is pictured outside the AstraZeneca office building in Brussels as part of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination campaign, Belgium, January 28, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Shabir Madhi from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg told Reuters he would begin rolling out the 1 million AstraZeneca doses already in the country immediately, since they expire in April and it would be reckless to waste them.

“It doesn’t make any sense to have 1 million doses of vaccine available to us which are known to be safe and to not start distributing it at least for high-risk groups,” Madhi said in an interview.

South African health officials said on Sunday they were putting AstraZeneca vaccinations on hold temporarily while they sought scientific advice on how to proceed. Vaccinations had been due to start soon, after the first vaccine doses arrived by plane from India last week.

The country, which has recorded the most coronavirus infections on the African continent and over 46,000 deaths, aims to vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of its population to reach some level of herd immunity.

Madhi said it was likely the AstraZeneca shot would protect against severe COVID-19, since it was developed using a similar technology to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has been shown to be effective in preventing severe COVID-19.

South Africa needed to recalibrate its expectations about vaccines this week after the trial showing reduced efficacy against mild-to-moderate illness caused by the more contagious 501Y.V2 variant, as well as to decide which groups to target and to start rolling out doses next week, he said.

“To start turning your back on a vaccine that could potentially save lives, I couldn’t understand the logic behind it,” Madhi said.

He said he would use the AstraZeneca vaccine to start protecting South Africa’s elderly and those with co-morbidities.

The country’s initial vaccination plan was to meant to start with health workers, but Madhi said the majority of the illness that was likely to occur among that group was mild-to-moderate infection and so the AstraZeneca jab would be better deployed on those at greater risk of severe illness.

Reporting by Alexander Winning; Editing by Alison Williams and Bernadette Baum