New Delhi: South Africa said recently that it would suspend its COVID-19 vaccinations with Covidshield vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford institute, one of the vaccines that India is using to fight the pandemic. Africa’s hardest-hit nation was due to start its campaign in the coming days with a million doses of AstraZeneca, however, it has suspended the use after a study showed the drug failed to prevent mild and moderate cases of the virus variant that has appeared in the country.
The study done in South Africa involved about 2,000 people, with an average age of 31. It showed the jab offered “minimal protection” against mild and moderate disease from the South African variant. AstraZeneca had said it did not know whether the jab would stop severe illness, because the study was predominantly on younger people. But the company said it could still be effective.
NDTV speaks with Professor Salim Abdool Karim, epidemiologist and co-chair of the scientific committee at the South African Health Ministry to understand why the country has stopped the rollout of AstraZeneca Vaccine and the way ahead.
Talking about the COVID-19 vaccine programme in South Africa, Mr Karim said,
When we actually developed COVID-19 vaccine plan for South Africa it was always made with view of diversity and different candidates of vaccines in mind and right now we are moving forward with three candidates and AstraZeneca vaccine or covidshield is one of the key vaccines. It is very disappointing to hear the result of the study that shows it is less effective in coping with the South African variant. We have a bit of uncertainty about whether it prevents severe disease or not, to move ahead, we need data before we proceed.
Stressing on the fact that we need more data on the efficacy of the vaccine, Mr Karim added,
Wider study is needed to be done to understand the efficacy of the vaccine. Currently, we have proposed two step roll out plan in South Africa, which the government is yet to approve – where for the first 100 thousand people, we will vaccinate them with AstraZeneca and monitor what the hospitalisation rates are, if the rates are below our threshold and we know that it protects against the disease, then we will roll it out to the rest of the population. And if it is not, then we will have to wait either for the AstraZeneca vaccine booster shot or give them another vaccine and in either ways, we are still rolling out the vaccination drive, but we are rolling out in a more systematic way.
Mr Karim said the decision to suspend the vaccination has been taken currently so that a situation doesn’t arise where the country has vaccinated millions of people and then finds out that it is not effective nor prevent hospitalisation from the disease.
Talking about a few of the shortcomings of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Mr Karim said that the way the vaccine trials or research programme have worked, its major shortcoming is that it lacks adequate data and efficacy on the safety of the vaccine. He said, “And that’s the reason why there is a lot of concern in rolling it out, especially as far as elderly are concerned.”
Mr Karim said that it will be very important and crucial that the company shares evidence that they have in view of the vaccine efficacy.
Talking about the current situation in South Africa and how the country wasn’t prepared to deal with the surge in cases, Mr Karim added,
We had originally anticipated that we will have a second wave in January that was on the basis that during December we have our festivities, so we assumed that there will be a lot of movement of people that will restart the transmission of the virus. But what happened is that we didn’t anticipated two things – one is that young people especially university or school people, when they will finish their examinations in November they would go out and gather in large number and attend parties. That happened in our country and it created a lot of superspreading events and second, we didn’t anticipate this new variant. The new variant spreads faster, it is able to escape natural immunity and is also able to escape some of the vaccine immunity and that is why currently we are facing a huge challenge in controlling it.
South Africa is currently lagging behind in the global vaccination race, the country received its first delivery of a million doses on Monday. An additional 500,000 doses are expected this month.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.