South Africa will begin its coronavirus inoculation campaign with Johnson & Johnson vaccines, the health minister said on Wednesday, after withholding the Oxford/AstraZeneca formula over doubts about effectiveness.
The country worst-hit by the pandemic in Africa has suspended its vaccine rollout — meant to begin with Oxford/AstraZeneca this week — after scientists found the shot failed to prevent mild and moderate illness caused by a local virus variant known as 501Y.V2.
“Given the outcomes of the efficacy studies…, (government) will continue with the planned phase one vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines instead of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a press briefing.
“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant.”
He did not say when immunisation would begin.
To date South Africa has ordered nine million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines, of which a small shipment is expected to arrive next week.
However, the first consignment will probably be used as “research stock,” Mkhize said.
South African pharmaceutical giant Aspen, a contracted Johnson & Johnson vaccine manufacturer, is striving to produce its first doses next month.
“They are very determined to fast-track this production in South Africa,” Mkhize said, adding that the stock would then be available in April.
South Africa’s vaccination delay has set back an ambitious aim to inoculate around 40 million people — 67 percent of the population — by the end of 2021.
The country was slow to catch on to the global vaccine scramble and only received its first jabs on February 1.
The one million AstraZeneca shots were produced by the Serum Institute of India, from which an additional 500,000 doses have been purchased.
South Africa is considering either selling or swapping these doses with countries facing the original strain of coronavirus, said the minister, insisting that nothing would go to waste.
Scientists have suggested administering some of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to several thousand people in South Africa to see if it can still prevent severe infection from the new variant.
Additional vaccines are being secured from US drugmaker Pfizer, and through the World Health Organisation-backed Covax facility and the African Union.
South Africa is emerging from a second wave of coronavirus infections largely fuelled by its virus variant, said to be more transmissible than the original form.
The country has recorded close to 1.5 million cases and over 46,800 deaths.