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What happens to the AstraZeneca vaccine and the money we spent on it?

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According to the Health Department’s director-general there are a number of options available in terms of the use of the vaccine that the government will be exploring

AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine roll-out put on hold. Cartoon: Bethuel Mangena/African News Agency (ANA)

THE ASTRAZENECA vaccine may not be effective against the Covid-19 variant found in South Africa, but its usage in the country has not been completely ruled out.

According to the Health Department’s director-general, Dr Anban Pillay, there are a number of options available in terms of the use of the vaccine that the government will be exploring.

About R120 million was spent in the procuring of the vaccines, while another 500,000 were set to arrive later this month. The country paid between $5.25 (about R77) per dose.

Procuring the vaccine directly from AstraZeneca or the Serum Institute of India costs R44.50 ($3) per dose.

“In a number of European countries the AstraZeneca vaccine is used in lower age groups, not in the over 60 age group. We may need to find an age group that would be appropriate to receive the vaccine,” said Pillay.

Seven days after one million AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines arrived in the country from the Serum Institute of India, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced a temporary halt to the roll-out of the vaccine.

This came after a study conducted by Wits University and Oxford University showed the vaccine had significantly reduced efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant – which has become the dominant variant in South Africa since local scientists identified it in December.

The trial, which involved 2,026 people, of whom half formed the placebo group, has not been peer-reviewed and did not provide data on older people, who are most likely to die or need hospitalisation.

Public health expert Dr Kerrin Begg said results from the study showed that the vaccine doesn’t prevent mild disease in young people, but they also don’t have the answers as to whether it prevents severe disease in the elderly and vulnerable populations affected by the new variant.

“What we are likely to see is to combine it (AstraZeneca) with an additional booster jab, which may protect against other variants. We may end up with a situation like the flu vaccine, where we are combining different variants and strains,” Begg said during an SABC interview.

Although there have been thousands of individual changes that have arisen as the virus mutates on replication and evolves into new variants, scientists are more concerned about the variants found in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, as they appear to be more contagious than others.

While there are concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy against the V501Y.V2 strain, the UK’s vaccines minister said the public could have “confidence” in the UK’s Covid vaccines, which “appear to work well” against the dominant variants in the country.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “Our brilliant scientists and medical advisers are now working on the potential for new versions of existing vaccines to offer further protection against Covid variants.”

Meanwhile, the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU) said the South African government’s move to halt the roll-out proves what they have been saying all along.

“The efficacy of the vaccine against the new strain of Covid-19 is not proven, and the government’s rushed approach has resulted in taxpayers’ money being spent on a vaccine that is set to expire in April. The rushed manner in which this was carried out can only create more problems,” said YNITU president Lerato Mthunzi.

In the coming months, South Africa is expecting to receive 12 million vaccine doses from the international Covax facility, nine million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when it is approved, and an estimated 20 million from the African Union’s vaccine acquisition task team.

Further acquisitions of vaccines will be needed to meet the government’s inoculation target.