South Africa halted Monday’s (February 8) planned rollout of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccinations after data showed it gave minimal protection against mild infection from one variant, stoking fears of a much longer cat-and-mouse battle with the pathogen.
Researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford said in a prior-to-peer analysis that the AstraZeneca vaccine provided minimal protection against mild or moderate infection from the South African variant among young people.
Britain and Australia urged calm, citing evidence that the vaccines prevented grave illness and death, while AstraZeneca said it believed its vaccine could protect against severe disease.
The AstraZeneca vaccine was the big hope for Africa as it is cheap and easier to store and transport than the Pfizer shot, making South Africa’s move a major blow, with sweeping implications for other regions.
The so called South African variant, known by scientists as 20I/501Y.V2 or B.1.351, is the dominant one in South Africa and is circulating in 41 countries around the world including the United States.
An analysis of infections by the South African variant showed there was only a 22% lower risk of developing mild-to-moderate COVID-19 if vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot versus those given a placebo.
Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalisation or death could not be assessed in the study of around 2,000 volunteers who had a median age of 31 as the target population were at such low risk, the researchers said.