AstraZeneca vaccine: WHO expert group recommends use even in countries with variants

GENEVA — A group of independent experts advising the World Health Organization on Wednesday recommended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine even in countries that turned up worrying coronavirus variants in their populations.

The WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) panel noted that “preliminary analyses” showed the AstraZeneca vaccine had reduced effectiveness against coronavirus variants that have emerged in Britain and South Africa.

South Africa this week paused part of its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after a small study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested it was poor at preventing mild to moderate disease caused by the variant first detected in the country.

The results threw South Africa’s vaccination campaign into disarray just as it was about to start administering the AstraZeneca vaccine — the only one authorized for general use in the country.

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But SAGE’s chair, Alejandro Cravioto, told a press briefing Wednesday vaccination efforts should go ahead even in countries like South Africa, where questions have been raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy against the newly-emerged variant of the coronavirus.

“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,” Cravioto said.

The advice given by the SAGE panel is used by health care officials worldwide, but doesn’t amount to a WHO green light for the U.N. and its partners to ship the vaccine. That approval could come after separate WHO group meetings on Friday and Monday to assess whether an emergency-use listing for the AstraZeneca vaccine is warranted.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is important because the U.N.-backed COVAX Facility, which aims to deploy coronavirus vaccines to people in need around the world whether in rich or poor countries, hopes to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine starting later this month.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, called the findings from the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts an “important milestone.”

She noted that the vaccine requires storage at refrigerator temperatures — not the far colder temperatures required of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that the group has already recommended for use. So far, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one to receive a WHO emergency use listing.

SAGE also said the vaccine should be given in two doses with an interval of 8 to 12 weeks, and should also be used in people aged 65 and older, without an upper age limit.

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