Viruses are survivors and when they can’t find sufficient hosts they begin to mutate. It’s very common for a virus such as COVID-19 to have a lot of variants, especially as people are receiving vaccinations. A new variant, known as B.1.351, appeared in South Africa and thus far, the individuals in a clinical trial that had been given the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine weren’t protected from this highly contagious variant. Participants experienced mild to moderate illness symptoms and this caused the country of South Africa to halt the distribution of this particular vaccine. Scientists in South Africa have indicated that the problem wasn’t just with the AstraZeneca vaccine, as they had seen the same effect for those that had been infected with some of the earliest COVID-19 viruses. Unlike many viruses, the immune system developments didn’t seem to have any effect on protecting them from reinfections with mild or moderate symptoms.
Although originally announced in South Africa, as of this writing, this particular variant has spread to over 32 countries, including the U.S. The problem with the evaluation process is that the number of cases studied in South Africa were so low. The scientists studying were unsure if the AstraZeneca vaccine was unable to protect against the severity of the B.1.351 variant. The additional problem is that those that participated in the clinical trial were fairly young and very unlikely to become ill so it gave another hurdle for scientists in judging whether the AstraZeneca vaccine could protect those that might get the variant so severely they might be hospitalized or die.
More Testing and Blood Samples
South Africa joins a number of countries that are listed as “Level-4 High” for COVID-19 infections. The decision to halt the distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine comes at a time when they received over a million doses of this specific vaccine. However, their scientists have continued to do additional testing, taking blood samples for those that were given the vaccine to gauge the immune responses to see if those individuals had enough protection against the most severe cases. The South African health officials indicated that they want to continue with more studies and testing before they think about resuming the vaccines from Oxford-AstraZeneca. Although as of this writing, their research has yet to be published in any scientific journal, they are already seeing that this particular vaccine is having little or no effect against preventing the mild to moderate cases of the B.1.351 variant.The clinical trials for AstraZeneca vaccine included around 2,000 participants that received either the placebo or the vaccine in two doses. Researches indicated that there were almost no differences in the number of people that were infected with the B.1.351 variant in both groups. The exact numbers: 19/748 people that were given the vaccine were infected with the variant and 20/714 people in the placebo group became infected with the variant. With such small trial numbers researchers simply don’t have enough data and statistics to be confident that the vaccine will have more than a 10% efficacy.
What About Other Vaccines against B.1.351?
Both Pfizer and Moderna have been doing ongoing studies with their vaccine and the B.1.351 variant, and both are reporting that while their vaccines still protect, they are seeing results that are less effective against this variant. Efficacy rates are also lower in South Africa for COVID-19 vaccines made by Novavax than reported in the U.S. Currently, South Africa has added the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which has shown in the clinical trials to be able to fight against the new variant. Health officials have ordered batches of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Feb. 2021 but they will not be enough. An additional order of twenty million doses has been placed but they won’t be arriving for several months. South Africa’s vaccine problem is that they don’t have any large vaccine manufacturing facilities in the country and instead, must order from other countries. South Africa also sources vaccines from the WHO-backed Covax scheme and an African Union program. Covax is a global initiative that allows countries that have little negotiating power to pool their resources so that they can support vaccine development, thereby allowing all members to get equal vaccine shares. Even belonging to multiple groups and making deals with manufacturers isn’t enough to supply vaccines to their entire population. It’s believed that they will receive the Covax delivery from April-June, 2021 and it will only cover vaccines for about 10% of the population.
South Africa had originally placed all of their hopes on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and since they have halted the roll-out, all of the vaccines they currently have will be placed in a warehouse. In an effort to expedite the situation, Johnson & Johnson has put in an application in South Africa for emergency use. The government is considering including some health workers as part of the ongoing clinical trials to assist in getting those in the front lines vaccinated.