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S.Africa open to sell or swap AstraZeneca shots: minister

South Africa is considering trading its doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, which may be less effective against a local virus variant, and beginning its inoculation campaign with Johnson & Johnson shots instead, the health minister said Wednesday.

The country worst-hit by the pandemic in Africa has suspended its vaccine rollout — meant to begin with Oxford/AstraZeneca this week — after a study found the jab failed to prevent mild and moderate illness caused by a variant discovered in South Africa dubbed 501Y.V2.

The vaccination delay has set back an ambitious plan to inoculate around 40 million people — 67 percent of the population — by the end of 2021.

“Given the outcomes of the efficacy studies (government) will continue with the planned phase one vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines instead of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a press briefing.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant.”

He did not say when immunisation would begin.

Meantime officials are deciding on the fate of more than a million Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines already secured from the Serum Institute of India (SII) and set to expire at the end of April, though that date could potentially be adjusted.

Mkhize pointed at several options, including selling or swapping the doses with countries tackling the original coronavirus strain.

Scientific advisors have also suggested administering the vaccine to several thousand people within South Africa to assess whether it can still prevent severe infection from 501Y.V2.

“Depending on their advice, the vaccine will be swapped before the expiry date,” he said, adding that “there are already countries who are asking to sell it to them”.

“Our scientists will continue with further deliberations on the AstraZeneca vaccine use in South Africa,” Mkhize explained, assuring that nothing would go to waste.

The World Health Organization announced later on Wednesday that the Oxford/AstraZeneca formula could be used in settings where “variants are present”, as well as on people over the age of 65.

– Local vaccine production –

South Africa was slow to catch on to the global vaccine scramble and only received its first jabs, one million AstraZeneca shots, on February 1.

An additional 500,000 doses have been purchased from the SII and are meant to be delivered this month.

South Africa has ordered nine million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines, of which a small shipment is expected to arrive next week.

But Mkhize said the first consignment would likely be used as “research stock”.

Vaccines have also been secured from US drugmaker Pfizer, the WHO-backed Covax facility and the African Union — bringing the announced total to just over 40 million.

Pfizer/BioNTech doses should be available in time for the first rollout phase, Mkhize added.

South African pharmaceutical giant Aspen, a contracted Johnson & Johnson vaccine manufacturer, is meanwhile striving to produce its first doses next month.

“They are very determined to fast-track this production in South Africa,” Mkhize said, adding that the stock would then be available in April.

Aspen told AFP it had “no further information” on its agreement with Johnson & Johnson and that speculations were “premature”.

South Africa is emerging from a second wave of coronavirus infections largely fuelled by 501Y.V2, said to be more transmissible than the original form.

The country has recorded close to 1.5 million cases and over 46,800 deaths.

Its now dominant variant has spread significantly across southern Africa, prompting a handful of countries to reconsider the use of Oxford/AstraZeneca shots.

Eswatini’s health minister on Tuesday said it would no longer be using the vaccine, while Malawi’s government is pondering a similar decision.