(france24) - Western governments rushed to offer support for the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccination after South Africa halted its roll-out when research showed it offered minimal protection against mild infection from a variant spreading there. Despite concerns, the lead investigator on the South African trial of the vaccine said he believed it had a major role to play in combating the virus.
The arrival of vaccines has given hope that scientists can tame a pandemic that has killed 2.3 million people worldwide. But the AstraZeneca vaccine has run into several setbacks, the latest on whether it provides enough protection against the more transmissible South African mutation.
Shabir Madhi from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who was the lead investigator on South Africa’s AstraZeneva vaccine trial, said he would begin rolling out the one million AstraZeneca doses already in the country immediately, since they have an expiry date in April and it would be reckless to waste them.
But if vaccines are less effective against new variants, they may need to be tweaked and people may need booster shots.
The World Health Organization and its Covax partners on Monday cautioned against dismissing AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine with the WHO's emergencies director Michael Ryan saying it was vital to use the tools available now to save lives.
"The primary job of vaccines right now is to reduce hospitalisations and deaths, and right now... they are working to do that," he said.
"We may need better vaccines to do more than just stop deaths and hospitalisations."
But "in emergency management you have got to do what you can do now", he added.
South Africa announced its pause after researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford found that the AstraZeneca vaccine provided only minimal protection against mild or moderate infection from the B.1.351 variant, now the dominant form of the virus in that country.
The research is not yet peer reviewed and did not provide data on older people most likely to die or need hospitalisation.
There was no data on whether the vaccine would prevent severe illness, and researchers said that was still possible.
"This study confirms that the pandemic coronavirus will find ways to continue to spread in vaccinated populations, as expected," said Andrew Pollard, chief investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial.
"But, taken with the promising results from other studies in South Africa using a similar viral vector, vaccines may continue to ease the toll on health care systems by preventing severe disease."
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