Picture: DENNIZN/123RF
Picture: DENNIZN/123RF

Geneva  —  AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective and should be deployed widely, including in countries where the coronavirus variant found in SA may reduce its efficacy, a World Health Organization (WHO) panel said on Wednesday.

In interim recommendations on the shot, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (Sage) panel said the vaccine should be given in two doses with an interval of 8 to 12 weeks, and should also be used in people aged 65 and older.

Even in countries such as SA, where questions have been raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine's efficacy against a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, “there is no reason not to recommend its use”, Sage chair Alejandro Cravioto told a briefing.

“We have made a recommendation that even if there is a reduction in the possibility of this vaccine having a full impact in its protection capacity, especially against severe disease, there is no reason not to recommend its use even in countries that have circulation of the variant,” he said.

The shot’s effect in older people is expected to be the same as for younger recipients, he said.

The move is good news for developing countries, many of which are waiting to administer their first shots as wealthier countries have already inoculated millions of residents.

SA this week paused part of its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after data from a small trial showed it did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2 variant of the coronavirus now dominant in the country.

The WHO said those preliminary findings “highlight the urgent need for a co-ordinated approach for surveillance and evaluation of variants” and their impact on vaccine efficacy.

“The WHO will continue to monitor the situation (and) as new data become available, recommendations will be updated accordingly,” it said.

The recommendation may encourage more countries to use the vaccine broadly, after some EU countries advised against giving it to the elderly, citing insufficient trial data involving older people.

AstraZeneca, which developed the vaccine with the University of Oxford, has pledged significant supplies to Covax, a facility that aims to distribute vaccines equitably around the world.

The WHO’s recommendation on the AstraZeneca shot follows its decision to clear a vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech  in December.

The UK drugmaker’s shot is easier to deploy than other vaccines such as Pfizer’s that need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, and costs less.

Covax said in January that it’s on track to deliver at least 2-billion doses of AstraZeneca's shot —  about two-thirds of which will go to lower-income economies—  and to vaccinate at least a fifth of each participating country’s population by year’s end.

The WHO’s emergency use authorisation is needed for Covax to send the vaccines to participating countries to ensure a product’s safety and efficacy for countries that might not have the resources to make the assessments themselves.

Individual countries can still make their own decisions on the use of shots.

AstraZeneca shares traded 0.9% lower in London.

Reuters, Bloomberg.

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