By Alexander Winning, Siyabonga Sishi, Elias Biryabarema, and Frank Phiri, Reuters
Johnson & Johnson will speed up deliveries of its COVID-19 vaccine to South Africa, a senior government official said on Monday, after the country suspended plans to roll out AstraZeneca shots due to disappointing trial data.
Health ministry Deputy Director-General Anban Pillay told state broadcaster SABC that the first J&J doses could arrive around the end of the week, whereas officials had previously said deliveries would start in the second quarter.
J&J said it was in advanced discussions with South Africa about “potential additional collaborations” to combat COVID-19.
“We hope to be able to share more details in the coming days,” it said.
Preliminary trial data showing the AstraZeneca shot offers only “minimal protection” against mild-to-moderate illness caused by the dominant coronavirus variant in South Africa is a blow to the continent’s immunisation plans.
Media reported that Malawi was also reviewing whether to proceed with an AstraZeneca rollout and a Ugandan health ministry spokesman said the government there would seek guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO).
The more contagious variant first identified in South Africa late last year is believed to have spread to nine other African countries, according to a WHO epidemiological report last week.
Although the trial by researchers at a Johannesburg university did not assess whether the vaccine protects against severe COVID-19 from the 501Y.V2 variant, the government is holding talks with local and international scientists to decide how to proceed.
Residents of Johannesburg’s Soweto township said the trial results were a big setback.
“It’s just a disappointment because the only thing that we were looking forward to … set us free it was the vaccine,” said Mabutho Dube, a 43-year-old former restaurant manager who is currently unemployed.
The AstraZeneca vaccine was seen as one of the best-suited to weak African public health systems as it can be stored at fridge temperatures, rather than the sub-freezing temperatures needed for Pfizer shots.
The global vaccine distribution scheme COVAX plans to start sending millions of vaccine doses to African countries this month.
The lead investigator of AstraZeneca’s vaccine study in South Africa said on Sunday it would be reckless to discard the million doses that arrived in the country last week as there was still a chance that they could protect against severe COVID-19.
AstraZeneca, which developed the vaccine with Oxford University, says it believes its vaccine can protect against severe disease and has already started adapting it against the 501Y.V2 variant.
Asked whether the sample size of the South Africa trial was large enough to draw conclusions from, Pillay said: “I don’t think we can be confident to say the vaccine doesn’t work, but we also don’t have the data to say it certainly will work. What we have are potential indicators.”
Pillay said that J&J’s vaccine was a good fit in the meantime. Trials had shown that it was highly effective in preventing hospitalisation and death, and it can also be stored at fridge temperatures, he said.
Local regulator SAHPRA has not yet authorised J&J’s vaccine but has been conducting a rolling review since late last year.
South Africa – which has reported the highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Africa and over 46,000 coronavirus-related deaths – hopes to vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of the population, to achieve some level of herd immunity.