During a briefing from the Department of Health on developments related to the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Health, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, said that there has been much confusion and panic about vaccines in general in the wake of the media reports that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not effective against the 501Y.V2 variant in South Africa.
The briefing was crucial to clarify concerns, Dr Dhlomo said, because he has been getting queries from the public and he has had to “scrape the bottom of the pot trying to respond to their concerns”.
During the briefing, the Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, said AstraZeneca’s inefficiency has scuppered the department’s rollout plans. This is disappointing, but the government has new plans to ensure that vaccines are available to to save lives.
He the reassured the committee that the research results do not mean that AstraZeneca is dangerous; it is simply not responsive to the South African variant. It is around 75 to 77% effective against the original version of the virus.
He further stated that the results of the South African research into the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine had not yet been peer reviewed when the media reports emerged. “Our scientists have done their research studies and were ready to disclose them, but were still tied by research protocol involved to ensure that their findings were peer reviewed before they could make them public,” he added.
Members of the committee wanted to know how this happened. The minister replied: “When we procured AstraZeneca, we procured it on the basis of the universal variant that was in place at the time. And it showed positive results, hence other countries have ordered it for use. Our variant emerged thereafter. At the time, the manufacturing of the vaccine was designed accordingly and procurement thereof was done before the variant emerged.”
On what will be done with AstraZeneca, he responded: “Our scientists will do their own study to determine how we will deal with it. But we have officially suspended the distribution of this vaccine for now, until a scientific determination is made.”
The committee asked Dr Mkhize about the cost of AstraZeneca’s set back, and what are other hidden costs of the rollout plans. In response, he said: “Once our scientists have made a determination, we would be able to determine the cost of the turn of events. About other added costs of vaccines roll-out, it’s difficult to tell now. We have to still determine the costs of the transportation, storage, distribution and roll-out studies, as well as related aspects in order for us to have a picture of the procurement cost of our roll-out plan.”
Members asked about the department’s efforts to procure an effective vaccine. The minister replied: “We have spoken to Johnson&Johnson, whose vaccine has a 57% efficacy rate to our variant, to afford us a bridging stock that was part of their research trials in order for us to be able to dispense doses to the frontline staff.”
He added: “Johnson&Johnson has assured us that they will afford us those supplies on top of the orders we have placed with them. And we will adjust our rollout plans on receipt of these doses.” He told the committee that the department will be able to announce the new vaccine rollout plans when they have secured required supplies.
Members also raised concerns once again about the lack of local research to manufacture South African vaccines. Aspen’s initiative in this regard is commendable, the committee said.
They also asked when the AstraZeneca vaccines lose their efficacy. The Department of Health stated that if this vaccine meets the required efficacy level, its April expiry date will not be a medical concern, beecause the first doses will have long been dispensed to front-line staff. The delegation further added that unlike food products, the expiry date of any new medicine is elastic. Its initial expiry date can be extended, based on laboratory tests until its ultimate expiry date is scientifically determined.
11 February 2021