Why Oxford Astrazeneca Covid-19 vaccine has been put on hold in South Africa

South Africa has a different variant of SARS-CoV-2 which is the most dominant in the country.

Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine: As coronavirus vaccination programmes have begun in many countries across the world, South Africa has decided to put on hold the use of Oxford and AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine in their vaccination drive. The decision was announced by the country’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on Sunday, even as South Africa is gearing up to begin the drive to vaccinate about two-thirds of its population this month. But why has South Africa taken this decision even as the vaccine had demonstrated an efficacy of 75%, leading to approval in several countries, including India?

South Africa has a different variant of SARS-CoV-2 which is the most dominant in the country. This variant emerged around the same time when the UK also discovered a new mutation of the virus, but this is significantly different from the UK variant. It is this variant which is responsible for the second wave that took over South Africa late last year.

Study of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine on this dominant variant in South Africa showed that the shot only had an efficacy of 22%. The country’s regulator has set a benchmark of at least 50% in order to consider a vaccine as effective against the virus, which means that the current version of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca cannot be used in South Africa.

However, AstraZeneca has recently said that it has begun the work on adapting the vaccine according to the variant present in South Africa and it believes that the vaccine would be able to work against it. Meanwhile, the government is awaiting the opinion of scientists regarding how to proceed with regard to the vaccine.

On the other hand, South Africa wishes to achieve some level of herd immunity by vaccinating about 40 million people in the country. The initial plan was to begin the rollout of the immunisation programme soon by administering the vaccine to its healthcare workers with the help of the doses manufactured by Serum Institute of India that it would receive on Monday. However, the Pune-based Serum Institute has been manufacturing Covishield, a variant of the Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

However, the Health Minister announced that the vaccination programme would still begin in the coming weeks, as it would now administer to its healthcare workers vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson.

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