Use AstraZeneca's COVID-19 shot even in countries with South African variant, says WHO panel

GENEVA (Reuters) - AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective and should be deployed widely, including in countries where the South African variant of the coronavirus may reduce its efficacy, a World Health Organization panel said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organization (WHO) during an executive board meeting on update on the coronavirus outbreak, in Geneva, Switzerland, February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

In interim recommendations on the shot, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (SAGE) panel said the vaccine should be given in two doses with an interval of 8 to 12 weeks, and should also be used in people aged 65 and older.

Even in countries such as South Africa, where questions have been raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy against a newly-emerged variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, “there is no reason not to recommend its use”, SAGE’s chair, Alejandro Cravioto, told a briefing.

“We have made a recommendation that even if there is a reduction in the possibility of this vaccine having a full impact in its protection capacity, especially against severe disease, there is no reason not to recommend its use even in countries that have circulation of the variant,” he said.

“We have thousands of people dying from the infection, in many countries of the world, daily,” Cravioto said. “Anything we can do to use a product that might reduce that is totally justified.”

The WHO said it expected by mid February to finalise its review of the shot for emergency use approval.

South Africa this week paused part of its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after data from a small trial showed it did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2 variant of the coronavirus now dominant in the country.

The WHO said those preliminary findings “highlight the urgent need for a coordinated approach for surveillance and evaluation of variants” and their impact on vaccine efficacy.

The WHO’s immunisation expert Kate O’Brien, said the agency was talking with experts and ministry officials in South Africa and providing advice.

“The important thing to remember is the AstraZeneca vaccine is an efficacious vaccine,” she said. “And it is an important vaccine for the world given the short supply that we have.”

Global health experts welcomed the SAGE recommendations.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome global health trust, said the AstraZeneca shot would “make an enormous difference to almost all countries and must be rapidly rolled out globally to save lives and get this pandemic under control.”

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA, John Miller in ZURICH, and Kate Kelland in LONDON; Editing by Jon Boyle and Toby Chopra