South Africa calls off vaccine roll-out on doubts over AstraZeneca jab

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South Africa has delayed the start of its AstraZeneca inoculation programme over concerns the shot does not work against a new Covid-19 variant. World Health Organization experts are to meet to discuss the vaccine, which is already playing a reduced role in several European nations due to questions over its efficacy in older patients.

Experimental results suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine provides only "minimal" protection against mild to moderate Covid-19 caused by a highly contagious new variant first detected in South Africa.

This is a major setback for the global fight against the pandemic, as many poorer nations are relying on the transport and storage advantages offered by the AstraZeneca shot.

Unlike the rival Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require super-cold conditions, AstraZeneca's can be stored in a domestic fridge.

Pretoria halts campaign on concerns

South Africa, the continent's hardest-hit nation, was due to start its campaign in the coming days with the AstraZeneca injection.

The Pretoria government has now decided to hold off in light of the results from the trial conducted by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

"It's a temporary issue...we have to hold on AstraZeneca until we figure out these issues," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters on Sunday.

The 1.5 million AstraZeneca vaccines obtained by South Africa will be kept until scientists give clear indications on their use, the minister added. The doses expire in April.

AstraZeneca, which developed the shot with the University of Oxford, continue to insist that their vaccine protects against severe disease.

A company spokesperson said researchers were already working to update the vaccine to deal with the South African variant, which has been spreading rapidly around the world.

WHO to decide on suitability of AZ jab

A World Health Organization panel is due to meet on Monday in Geneva to examine the AstraZeneca shot, which is a major component of the initial Covax global vaccine rollout that covers some 145 countries -- mostly lower and lower-middle income economies.

Of the initial 337.2 million Covax doses, 240 million are from AstraZeneca.

There are already concerns about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca shot among over-65s, with a number of European nations not authorising it for that age group.