Reports that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not effective against mild and moderate mutations of COVID-19 has forced South Africa to pause it rollout, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt are not concerned about the latest developments.
Oxford University, which developed the vaccine in conjunction with AstraZeneca, released details on Sunday of a study that showed that the effectiveness of the vaccine was substantially reduced when compared with the original strain of the virus.
The Oxford researchers explained that the data from the study appears to confirm that the mutations of the virus seen in South Africa will allow ongoing transmission of the virus in vaccinated populations, even in those with prior infection.
The findings are important as a large proportion of Australia’s national vaccination plan revolves around the production and distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
While Australia has contracts to purchase and produce enough of the AstraZeneca vaccine to immunise the entire population, these reports of its efficacy on this South African strain of the virus has cast further doubt on the strategy.
Speaking to Ben Fordham on 2GB Breakfast, Mr Hunt said he was unconcerned about the latest report on the situation in South Africa, where they had suspended their vaccination launch on the back of the results of the study.
“What we’ve seen is additional data coming out of the UK recently,” Mr Hunt said. “I spoke with the UK Health Secretary in recent days, that’s their health minister equivalent, they’re having very strong results.
“In terms of particular variants, particular countries, the world is learning about those with all vaccines. But all up, what we’re seeing is very significant results from the vaccines that have been approved, with up to 100 per cent protection on the early data that we’ve seen in the clinical trial results for serious illness and hospitalisation.”
Mr Morrison also said that he was satisfied with the preliminary results from countries that had started using the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“We’re already seeing in quite a number of countries where the vaccine is being rolled out, that not only is it delivering real results in preventing serious illness, but also, we’re seeing some early signs … about its impact on preventing transmission,” Mr Morrison said.
“That means that the virus in Australia could become just like many other viruses. That means that you know they exist but then don’t lead to the serious illness that we have seen from COVID-19.
“There are many diseases and viruses that are in the community that don’t require the response that we have had to COVID-19 over the past year.”
Oxford University researchers have already started working with AstraZeneca to try to adapt the vaccine to the South African strain of the virus, but the process could take several months, according to Professor Sarah Gilbert from Oxford University.
“Efforts are underway to develop a new generation of vaccines that will allow protection to be redirected to emerging variants as booster jabs, if it turns out that it is necessary to do so,” Prof. Gilbert explained.
“We are working with AstraZeneca to optimise the pipeline required for a strain change should one become necessary.
“This is the same issue that is faced by all of the vaccine developers, and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in readiness for a future strain change.”
Professor Andrew Pollard from Oxford University said that it was always expected that mutations of the virus would occur but said the current vaccine would still ease the pressure on health care systems around the world.
“This study confirms that the pandemic coronavirus will find ways to continue to spread in vaccinated populations, as expected, but, taken with the promising results from other studies in South Africa using a similar viral vector, vaccines may continue to ease the toll on health care systems by preventing severe disease,” Prof. Pollard explained.
Mr Hunt confirmed that Australia’s vaccination rollout was still on schedule to start in late February but was unable to announce an exact date.
“We’ll set a final date once we have shipping confirmation from the company,” Mr Hunt said. “But we’ve been in contact with Pfizer Australia yesterday (Sunday), and they remain on track.
“I was in contact with AstraZeneca on the weekend, indeed, the Australian and global heads, they remain on track for early March.
“So, late February for Pfizer, early March for AstraZeneca. And we’re on track to complete the vaccination programme for Australia by the end of October.”
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