In Brief: WHO advises AstraZeneca vaccine for South Africa variant

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A vial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by: Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Amid concerns on the efficacy of AstraZeneca-Oxford’s new coronavirus vaccine, the World Health Organization’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization still recommends its use in countries where the variant B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, is circulating.

There is “indirect evidence” that the vaccine can still protect against severe COVID-19, said Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, chair of the expert group.

Vaccines, not just for coronavirus, have a gradient level of response, from severe to mild disease. Evidence presented to the group also showed T-cell response would be “quite strong” against the B.1.351 variant, said Kate O’Brien, director of WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals.

The expert group also said the vaccine can be given to individuals aged 18 years old and above, with no age limit.

Why it matters: The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is seen as one of the most accessible and affordable among the range of COVID-19 vaccines that have demonstrated efficacy against COVID-19. Many lower income countries are expecting to receive the vaccine under COVAX, the global vaccines initiative.

What is the constraint: The recent study in South Africa demonstrated the vaccine only has 22% efficacy against mild to moderate cases involving the new coronavirus variant B.1.351, which has also been reported in 32 countries and territories to date. This has raised questions on whether the vaccine should be rolled out in these countries. South Africa is already delaying the administration of the vaccine.

Amid these concerns, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told health workers to take the vaccine being rolled out in their countries.

“Please take it. Don't compare and wait for something better to come along. A vaccine now is much better than waiting for something potentially that may come down the road,” she said.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.