South Africa halts AstraZeneca jabs, but experts say it’s ‘too early’ for Australia to be worried

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South Africa will halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after trial data showed the jab offered limited protection against mild disease in the variant that emerged in the country — but experts and the Australian Government say it is unlikely to affect the Australian rollout.

Key points:

  • Early data from an Oxford University study suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine offered only “minimal protection” against the South Africa variant
  • Vaccine lead researcher Sarah Gilbert said the company expected to have a new jab to cope with the variant by September
  • Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was not concerned about vaccine

Early data from an Oxford University study suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine offered only “minimal protection” against mild disease caused by the South Africa variant.

But Australian experts say the data set is too small to draw any major conclusions.

The study, which had not yet been peer-reviewed, involved just 2,000 people with an average age of 31.

“Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalisation or death could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk,” a statement from Oxford University read.

The vaccine’s lead researcher Sarah Gilbert said the company expected to have a modified jab to cope with the South Africa coronavirus variant by September, despite its belief the vaccine would still protect “against severe disease”.

Australia has bought 53.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with the first doses expected to arrive later this month. The vaccine has not yet received TGA approval, but a decision is expected as soon as this week.

If approved it will be be rolled out in “phase 1b” of Australia’s vaccine plan, coming behind the Pfizer vaccine, which is set for first jabs later this month.

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Public health officials are concerned about the South Africa variant because it contains a mutation of the virus’ characteristic spike protein, which is targeted by existing vaccines. South Africa’s Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, said “more work” was needed on the vaccine.

The country received 1 million doses last week and was to begin inoculating the population in coming days.

“We do believe our vaccine will still protect against severe disease, as neutralising antibody activity is equivalent to other COVID-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimised to eight to 12 weeks,” a statement from AstraZeneca read.

RECAP: Look back on the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said the medical advice he received was that Australians should not be concerned by South Africa’s decision.

“The advice as of this morning from the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Paul Kelly, and the head of the vaccine taskforce, Professor Brendan Murphy, is very clear,” he said.

“There is currently no evidence to indicate a reduction in the effectiveness of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines at preventing severe disease and death.

“We put our faith in the TGA and they will operate as a free, fearless, independent agency.”

Mr Hunt said the Government would continue to follow the studies being done in South Africa.

Man in coat and mask holds large green bag out toward open doorMan in coat and mask holds large green bag out toward open doorMass testing is underway but experts say simply closing the borders isn’t a long-term solution to fighting the spread of COVID-19.(

AP: Matt Dunham

)

The Government’s current position has been backed by experts including University of Queensland virologist Kirsty Short, who told the ABC it was too far early to jump to any conclusions.

“It’s very, very hard to evaluate [it] when we can’t have the actual peer-reviewed clinical trial data released,” Dr Short said.

“Potentially [it] means limitations of using AstraZeneca in places where the South African variant is dominant. But we just don’t have enough information yet to conclude that.

“And this is why we [in Australia] have multiple vaccines available.”

Caution urged over study results

Health officials in Britain are also trying to contain the spread of the South Africa variant amid concerns that it is more contagious.

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More than 100 cases of the South African variant have been found in the UK.

“We have a version [of the vaccine] with the South African spike sequence in the works,” Ms Gilbert said

“It looks very likely that we can have a new version ready to use in the autumn.”

Robin Shattock, a scientist who is leading the coronavirus vaccine research at Imperial College London, urged caution about the study’s early findings.

But he said it was “concerning to some extent that we’re seeing that it’s not effective against mild or moderate disease”.

UK has vaccinated almost 12 million people

Authorities in England last week went house-to-house to administer COVID-19 testing in eight areas where the South Africa variant is believed to be spreading, after a handful of cases were found in people who had no contact with the country or anyone who travelled there.

Read our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The testing blitz is a bid to snuff out the variant before it spreads widely and undermines the UK’s vaccination rollout.

Britain has seen Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with over 112,000 confirmed deaths, but it has embarked on a speedier vaccination plan than the neighbouring European Union.

So far the UK has given a first coronavirus vaccine jab to about 11.5 million people.

What you need to know about coronavirus:

AP/Reuters

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