South African government officials were scheduled to meet with scientists Thursday to determine the next steps after a new study published Wednesday seemed to offer evidence the local variant of COVID-19 (501Y.V2) could reduce antibody protection from the Pfizer vaccine by as much as two-thirds.
The findings of the study were published in a letter on February 17, 2021 online in the New England Journal of Medicine by the Pfizer Vaccine Research and Development team, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Texas, and BioNTech in Mainz, Germany.
The government had planned to vaccinate 40 million people – two thirds of the population – as it battles a pandemic that has already infected 1.5 million South Africans and killed 48,313 more.
The first doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine were administered in the country on Wednesday after a clinical trial showed its efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant (B.1.351 lineage) even though it has not yet been officially authorized anywhere on the planet.
The J&J vaccine was found to be 72 percent effective against the coronavirus during its trial in the UK, but in a larger trial in South Africa, the efficacy rate dropped to 57 percent, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. However, when fighting severe COVID-19 cases alone, the J&J vaccine zoomed up to 85 percent efficacy.
The South African government has already received its first delivery of 80,000 doses of the J&J vaccine; a total of nine million doses are on order.
Professor Barry Schoub, chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on vaccines, said the committee would discuss the study alongside information on other COVID-19 vaccines, Reuters reported.
“The Pfizer vaccine is enormously effective at 95 percent so even if there is quite a significant reduction there still will be quite a bit of remnant efficacy left,” he said.
“Luckily there are a range of vaccines available and what we will do is work with the national authorities to understand the implications of this (study) and see what they need to do,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the Africa director of the World Health Organization.
South Africa’s Health Ministry spokesperson Popo Maja said the government’s scientists “will be meeting to discuss it (the study) and they will advise the minister. It is very likely that it will protect to a reasonable extent, certainly against severe illness and mild to moderate to some extent.”
South Africa is the country hardest hit by the pandemic on the African continent. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to make a ruling on the Johnson & Johnson application later this month.