Six of SA’s leading medical scientists said the government’s decision to sell 1-million coronavirus vaccines developed by AstraZeneca to other African nations is questionable because it had not determined their effectiveness against a variant that is widespread in Africa and SA.

SA bought the shots from the Serum Institute of India (SII), which is making the vaccine under licence. It suspended the rollout to health workers in February after a small study showed they were largely ineffective in stopping mild disease caused by a virus variant first identified in SA late in 2020.

The vaccines were resold to other African countries earlier in March.

“Sending the AstraZeneca vaccine to other African countries raises deep ethical concerns,” the scientists said in an editorial published in the SA Medical Journal on Thursday. “The B.1.351 variant has been detected throughout Africa and may be responsible for the devastating second wave many countries have just experienced. If the SA authorities truly believed that the AstraZeneca vaccine did not work, why was it sold on to the AU?”

The sale comes as SA lags behind countries elsewhere in Africa and emerging-market peers in vaccinating its people, with just more than 200,000 inoculated to date.

The editorial was written by Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist from Wits University who led athe  trial of AstraZeneca’s shot in SA; Francois Venter, Jeremy Nel and Alex van den Heever also from Wits; Marc Mendelson from the University of Cape Town; and Mosa Moshabela from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is likely to prevent severe disease, according to the scientists. Other vaccines, including one made by Pfizer that will be supplied to SA, have not been comprehensively tested against the variant, they said.

SA is the worst hit nation in Africa by the coronavirus with 1.54-million confirmed cases and more than 52,000 deaths.


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