South Africa will start vaccinating health workers with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine in the form of an “implementation study” with researchers next week.

Vials labelled
Vials labelled "Covid-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and syringe are seen in front of a South Africa flag in this illustration taken on February 9, 2021. (Reuters)

South Africa’s health minister has said the government may sell or swap its doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine but after advice from scientists as it prepares to roll out as yet unapproved Johnson & Johnson shots next week.

South Africa paused the rollout of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University after data in a small clinical trial showed it did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2/ B.1.351 variant of the coronavirus now dominant in the country.

One million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, landed in the country last week, and another 500,000 are due to arrive in the coming weeks. South Africa was also expecting to receive AstraZeneca shots via the COVAX global vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organisation and an African Union (AU) arrangement.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a news conference the country would start vaccinating health workers with unapproved Johnson & Johnson's vaccine in the form of an "implementation study" with researchers some time next week.

"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," Mkhize said.

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

Negotiations with Moderna, China's Sinopharm and over Russia's Sputnik V vaccine are ongoing as South African government had also secured doses from Pfizer for health workers.

Mkhize said the first batch of J&J doses would not be a lot compared to the total the country was hoping to order.

Officials previously said the country had secured 9 million J&J doses.

READ MORE: South Africa to pay 2.5 times more than EU for AstraZeneca's vaccine

Vaccine yet to be approved

The one-shot J&J vaccine is still being tested internationally and has not been approved in any country.

But Mkhize, in a nationally broadcast address, declared that the vaccine is safe, relying on tests of 44,000 people done in South Africa, the United States and Latin America.

The vaccine shows 89 percent efficacy at preventing severe disease and 57 percent efficacy against moderate-to-severe disease in the South African leg of a global trial

Ninety-five percent of infections observed in the local study were due to the 501Y.V2 variant first identified late last year.

The 501Y.V2 variant has alarmed health experts who have raised concerns about its ability to potentially evade the immune response generated by prior exposure to the coronavirus or vaccines.

The locally dominant variant is more contagious and drove a resurgence of Covid-19 that caused nearly twice the cases, hospitalisations and deaths experienced in the initial surge of the disease in South Africa.

South Africa and many other African and poor countries had looked to the AstraZeneca vaccine as it is cheaper and does not require storage in ultra-cold freezers. It is also being produced in large quantities in India for shipment elsewhere.

South Africa hopes to vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of its population, to achieve some level of herd immunity.

READ MORE: Bad news for vaccines after UK Covid-19 variant mutates again

Source: TRTWorld and agencies