Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot OK to use despite variant questions, WHO panel says

The Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective and should be deployed widely, including in countries where the variant of the coronavirus first identified in South Africa may reduce its efficacy, a World Health Organization panel said on Wednesday.

In interim recommendations on the shot, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) panel said the vaccine should be given in two doses with an interval of eight to 12 weeks, and should also be used in people aged 65 and older.

Even in countries such as South Africa, where questions have been raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy against a newly emerged variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, “there is no reason not to recommend its use,” SAGE’s chair, Alejandro Cravioto, told a briefing.

“We have made a recommendation that even if there is a reduction in the possibility of this vaccine having a full impact in its protection capacity, especially against severe disease, there is no reason not to recommend its use even in countries that have circulation of the variant,” he said.

Health Canada is considering authorization of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to store than the two mRNA vaccines already approved for use in this country.

AstraZeneca‘s product was also less efficacious (70 per cent) in clinical trials than the Pfizer-BioNTech (95 per cent) and Moderna vaccines (92 per cent) rolling out to Canadians. 

Health Canada “is currently completing its review of the submitted data and expects to make a decision on the authorization of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the coming days,” a spokesperson said in an email on Tuesday. “While the Department collaborates with other regulators, it remains committed to conducting an independent and thorough scientific review of all COVID-19 vaccines.”

South Africa this week paused part of its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after data from a small trial showed it did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the variant of the coronavirus now dominant in the country.

Option for Canada?

Dr. Caroline Quach, chair of Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) that makes recommendations to governments on the use of newly approved vaccines for humans, said AstraZeneca’s vaccine is better than nothing. 

“Let’s say it becomes available in the next two or three weeks when there is no Pfizer or Moderna,” Quach said. “I think people who are healthy and not at risk could benefit entirely.”

The WHO said the preliminary findings from South Africa “highlight the urgent need for a co-ordinated approach for surveillance and evaluation of variants” and their impact on vaccine efficacy.

“The important thing to remember is the AstraZeneca vaccine is an efficacious vaccine,” said Dr. Katherine O’Brien, head of WHO’s immunization department. “It is an important vaccine for the world given the short supply that we have.”

WHO’s expert panel recommendations about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed at Oxford University in Britain, largely mirror those issued earlier by the European Medicines Agency and Britain’s drug regulator.

The AstraZeneca vaccine forms the bulk of the stockpile acquired so far by the UN-backed effort known as COVAX, which aims to deploy coronavirus vaccines to people globally.

COVAX plans to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine worldwide later this month, pending WHO approval for the shot, vaccine stocks and countries’ readiness to receive it.

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