The World Health Organization (WHO) has come out in support of the South African government’s controversial decision to halt the rollout of one million AstraZeneca vaccine doses which arrived in the country two weeks ago.
This was heard during a media briefing by the WHO regional office for Africa, convened to update the continent on efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic amid outbreaks of Ebola in some northern states.
Twelve countries have expressed interest in receiving some of the rejected vaccine doses, which South Africa has offered to donate to African Union countries, according to the WHO.
The vaccine was found to be ineffective in preventing severe Covid-19 symptoms in patients with the 501Y.V2 variant of the virus. Doses of the vaccine were still being rolled out in controlled environments for further studies into its efficacy.
WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said while the prevalence of the 501Y.V2 variant of Covid-19 affected other African countries, it was not as dominant as in South Africa and so others could benefit from the donations.
South African opposition parties and other civil organisations decried the overnight decision to halt the rollout of the drugs and were even more incensed after it turned out the vaccines would expire in April this year.
“We actually found it understandable that the South African government wished to pause and understand the situation better and in fact took action then to acquire doses of a different vaccine given the predominance of this variant that is circulating in the country,” said Moeti.
“We provide advice that having this variant circulating the country does not necessarily mean the AstraZeneca vaccine will not be of any benefit whatsoever. However, a country needs to carry out its benefit and risk assessment and see whether it decides to go with this vaccine.”
Moeti described South Africas decision to donate the doses as an admirable and reasonable gesture.
The strategic advisory group of experts convened by WHO to give Covid-19 advise to African countries advised them to continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine even if other variants of the virus were circulating. But given that in South Africa, the strain was far more dominant as the country faced a second wave of infections after the last festive season.
Moeti said there was still a need to better understand the efficacy and the performance of the AstraZenca vaccine, given that the Wits University study which revealed its inefficacy had not been large enough to be conclusive.
“They are going to deploy it in a very limited and controlled conditions to support the acquisition the generation of more data on its its efficacy, especially as it relates to older people with potential to have severe symptoms of the disease.”