COVID-19: South Africa wants to swap 500,000-dose AstraZeneca order for another vaccine

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South Africa wants to swap a 500,000-dose order of the AstraZeneca vaccine for a different treatment.

The COVID jabs have yet to arrive in the country but the health minister said he hoped to arrange an exchange, or even sell the treatment on.

It comes as scientists advising the World Health Organisation have recommended the use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in adults of all ages.

South Africa has suspended the rollout of the jab there after a small trial suggested it may offered less protection against the variant that originated there.

The drugs company said early data showed "limited efficacy against mild disease" but that it believed it "could still protect against severe disease".

However, as the average age of people in the study was 31 the efficacy against severe disease across age ranges is not conclusive.

Zweli Mkhize, South Africa's health minister, said on Wednesday he had contacted the Serum Institute of India - which is helping to make the AstraZeneca jab - on the matter of a swap.

He also said officials have been speaking to the COVAX international vaccine scheme about the possibility.

Mr Mkhize said: "Why not sell the AstraZeneca to other countries, well it's an option, ... we will consider it. First our scientists will tell us what we do with it, can we use it within the time that's available... before it expires.

"If not, can we swap it with anyone else, because we've discussed it with COVAX and with AVATT (the AU's vaccine task team), so we will see what we will do."

It's not clear how an onward sale or swap would work given the varying prices for vaccines around the world or if the British drugmaker would have to agree to such a move. Serum and AstraZeneca declined to comment.

A million doses already arrived in South Africa last week.

Mr Mkhize said his country would instead start vaccinating health workers with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week in an "implementation study".

Nearly 47,000 people have died with the virus in the country and about 1.47 million have been infected.

While the AstraZeneca shot may prove less effective against the South Africa variant, that variant is still extremely rare in the UK.

Only around 170 cases have been detected, and intense testing has been set up where small local outbreaks have been found.

The so-called Kent variant, first detected in the South East, is dominant in Britain - against which the AstraZeneca jab is extremely effective.

Researchers say existing vaccines can be tweaked in a matter of months to cope with new variants, such as the one from South Africa.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said autumn booster shots could be set up to ensure people's protection remains up to date.

Oxford vaccine lead researcher Professor Sarah Gilbert has said her team is working on an adapted version of the jab to tackle the South African variant which could be "available for the autumn".