WHO warns against dismissing AstraZeneca vaccine after setbacks

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The World Health Organization and its Covax partners cautioned today against dismissing AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine after several setbacks, insisting it remains an important, life-saving tool.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is currently a vital part of Covax, which was set up to procure Covid-19 vaccines and ensure their equitable distribution around the world.

It accounts for almost all of the 337.2 million vaccine doses Covax is preparing to begin shipping to some 145 countries during the first half of the year, once it receives WHO authorization, which is expected next week.

But the vaccine has run into several setbacks.

“It is vastly too early to be dismissing this vaccine,” said Richard Hatchett, who heads the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which co-leads the Covax vaccine facility with the WHO and Gavi.

“It is absolutely crucial to use the tools that we have as effectively as we possibly can,” he said, speaking at the WHO’s regular bi-weekly press briefing on the coronavirus pandemic.

Regulatory authorities in several European nations have refused to authorize the vaccine for use among the over-65s – by far the most vulnerable age group for serious Covid-19 disease – due to a lack of data proving its efficacy among older people.

And South Africa said yesterday it would suspend the start of its Covid-19 vaccinations with the AstraZeneca jab after a study showed the jab failed to prevent mild and moderate cases of the virus variant that has appeared in the country.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that the study’s findings were “clearly concerning news”.

But he stressed that there were “some important caveats”, pointing in particular to the small size of the study with only 2,000 participants, urging more research.

And today, the lead investigator on the South African trial of AstraZeneca’s vaccine said he believed it had a major role to play in Africa and globally.

WHO’s vaccine chief Kate O’Brien pointed to other studies showing the vaccine could have a “meaningful impact against severe disease”, including with the B.1.351 variant first detected in South Africa.

She said the organization’s vaccine expert group, which met earlier today to discuss its recommendations on the use of the jab, had appeared optimistic about its prospects against the variant.

The 15-member Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (SAGE) is due to render its verdict later this week.

However, Ms O’Brien said the experts had expressed “a very positive view on proceeding with the use of the vaccine including in settings where variants are circulating”.

Gavi chief Seth Berkley agreed that current evidence indicated the jab “is an efficacious vaccine”.

At the same time, he underscored the need to continue monitoring all the Covid vaccines, and possibly adapting them to better battle new variants “if found to be scientifically necessary”.

Meanwhile, the WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said it was vital to use the tools available now to save lives.

“The primary job of vaccines right now is to reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and right now… they are working to do that,” he said.

“We may need better vaccines to do more than just stop deaths and hospitalizations.” But “in emergency management you have got to do what you can do now,” he added.

Meanwhile, an international team of experts who have been in China for the past month to help investigate Covid’s origins will speak with the media in Wuhan tomorrow, the WHO said.

“The international team working to understand the origins of the Covid-19 virus is completing its four weeks stay in Wuhan, China, and together with their Chinese colleagues will participate in a press conference,” the WHO said today.

Source: AFP