Sat. Feb 27th, 2021

AstraZeneca latest: Why there is ‘no need to fear’ SA’s vaccine setback

After an unfavourable set of results derailed the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in SA, it’s worth noting that the situation is far from hopeless.

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It’s probably the last thing you needed to hear just before getting into bed on Sunday night – and yes, the Monday morning misery is particularly strong today, following the news that South Africa’s plans to rollout the AstraZeneca COVID-19 have been ripped to shreds. New clinical data has revealed that the jabs are ‘somewhat ineffective’ against the SA variant.

We’re going to be real with you: We have to get through some factually-unavoidable downers first. Then, we’re going to look at the remaining positives – which, in the long run, will outweigh these initial set-backs. Seatbelts on, please.

SA variant vs AstraZeneca vaccine: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Now, almost a year into our pandemic struggle, the vaccines were meant to be our clear route of lockdown. Our faith in science should have been rewarded, but the stubborn mutation that’s become dominant in South Africa has pushed many to the limit. When the latest research was released yesterday, the first reaction from the public was one of hopelessness.

With a million shots now officially shelved until further notice, it’s a bad look for the government. Perhaps the ANC can’t be wholly blamed for this situation, but the optics of Cyril Ramaphosa checking the delivery receipt of a vaccine shipment – which arrived with optimistic fanfare just seven days ago – now seems a bit silly…

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President Cyril Ramaphosa in a snap inspection of the AstraZeneca vaccine shipment at OR Tambo International Airport on 1 February – Image: Supplied

Do vaccines have an expiry date?

You’ve also got another factor at play here: The AstraZeneca vaccines are only good for about six months or so. They were created in October, and therefore, are only properly useful until April. South Africa now faces the perplexing task of trying to use up a million ineffective vaccines within the next six to ten weeks. It could only happen to us, right?

The first inoculations were meant to be rolled out this week. They’ve been pushed back to an unconfirmed date. The big issue we have here is that the AstraZeneca vaccine struggles to stop ‘mild and moderate’ forms of the 501Y.V2 strain. It’s likely to stay with us, in some form or another, ‘for a lifetime’. Professor Shabir Madhi, who led the clinical trial of the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate locally, gave this summary:

“The 501Y.V2 variant emerged and spread rapidly throughout the country. Studies then changed to examine the vaccine’s potency against the original virus as compared to the new strain. Much of the antibody induced by the vaccine was not actually active against the variant circulating in SA.”

“Studies showed a “substantial drop” in the vaccine’s ability to neutralise the activity of the virus. When we analysed individuals in terms of how well the vaccine worked against the variant, there was very little difference between the vaccine group and placebo group. However, vaccines really remain the only sustainable option of reducing severe disease.”

Professor Madhi

But, the good news is…

So after taking all that in, you’re probably wondering where the good news is going to come from – don’t worry, there’s still plenty of it to go around: This latest development is a setback, rather than a complete and utter disaster. Even our top epidemiologist, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, stated that these results ‘do not spell doom and gloom’.

That’s because the ‘ineffective results’ (which prevent infection in just 10% – 22% of analysed cases) are based solely on MILD AND MODERATE infections. The scientific community has since expressed its confidence in how the AstraZeneca vaccine will treat more severe forms of COVID-19, believing that efficacy rates will be ‘much higher’ in this field – making AZ a useful weapon to keep in the armory.

If the name of the game is reducing hospitalisations and preventing deaths, that means very little has actually changed.

AstraZeneca results on SA variant ‘not all doom and gloom’

It’s also vital to remember that this is just one vaccine that’s recording these results. Yes, other producers have seen ‘reduced efficacy’ with our homegrown variant, but the likes of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have already been tested on the 501Y.V2 strain – with 50-60% of all infections quelled by their immunisations.

Those two aforementioned brands, by the way, are set to bring millions of vaccines into South Africa ‘by March’.

As for the so-called ‘expiry date’, you can perhaps take that with a pinch of salt for now. Nobody in South Africa is going to receive a vaccine that has ‘gone off’. This talk of a ‘best-before’ status reflects the ever-changing nature of viruses. Formulas need to be tweaked roughly twice a year, and our million-strong stock of AZ jabs is still likely to come in handy:

Will a third wave of COVID-19 hit South Africa?

By no means is this positivity for positivity’s sake. The challenges detailed at the beginning of this article must be taken seriously, and the boffins at Oxford University are already on the case. They confirmed earlier that their ‘booster vaccine’, which can take on this troublesome variant, will be ready by September.

Unfortunately, that may be too little too late for many South Africans. As we say, nothing is being sugarcoated here. That delay in vaccine efficacy could lead Mzansi into a third wave of COVID-19 for winter. But, given that we flattened our last curve over a six-week period in December and January, a long version of a hard lockdown is unlikely to resurface.

There’s plenty of rough, but you cannot ignore the smooth: Science, epidemiology, and viral evolution aren’t black and white matters, and more often than not, certain developments require a bit of perspective from both sides. In these tough times, a glass-half-full approach might prove to be the perfect tonic…

No need to panic over SA variant and AstraZeneca vaccine

And, rather fittingly, we’ll leave the last words with Professor Salim Abdool Karim – who gave us this injection of positivity:

“These findings do not spell ‘doom and gloom’. Pfizer and Moderna seem to do ‘reasonably well’ against the 501Y.V2 variant. The Sinopharm vaccine also shows only a small reduction in efficacy, about 1.5 fold. We also hope the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will show a smaller decline in efficacy against the variant, making it another 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.”.

“You will take the existing vaccine to give you immunity against the existing variants and then take this booster which will boost it in order to give you protection from 501Y.V2 variant. A ‘next-generation of vaccinations’ is intended to be much broader and will cover you from the current and future variants. That will take a little longer to develop.”

Professor Salim Abdool Karim

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