By Lehlohonolo Lehana.
The expiry date of the one million AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines secured by the South African government is a far bigger problem than authorities are letting on – and there’s nothing that can be done about it, according to reports.
Speaking to the City Press on condition of anonymity, sources involved with the vaccine rollout said that the expiry dates on the vaccines – 13 April – mean that phase one of the strategy would never have been doable to begin with.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is a two-dose inoculation, with the recommendation that the second dose be administered 12 weeks after the first.
Even if someone was vaccinated on day one of the phase one rollout (15 February), the vaccine would have expired by the time of the second dose. A day-one vaccine recipient would require a second shot on 10 May – a month after the vaccines expire.
It is standard practice for vaccines to carry a 6-month expiry period, starting after delivery. In the case with South Africa’s batch, the April expiry date has given government just two months to make use of them. Assuming further batches were coming, this would have required 15,000 vaccinations a day, starting Monday.
Government officials only found out about the expiry date on the day the vaccines arrived in the country.
Sources told the paper that issue is far worse than government lets on.
The relationship between government and the Serum Institute of India (SII) has reportedly soured, with the SII refusing to give the country new doses, and government refusing to pay for the second batch of 500,000 vaccines which were to be delivered in March.
The other issue is the question of what to do with the vaccines already in the country.
Health experts have suggested using the vaccines on patients who are high risk or in serious condition – while other measures have been suggested, like selling, or donating the vaccines to other countries.
It cost South Africa R78 million to procure the doses.
The country has since pivoted to using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, where 80,000 doses are expected to roll out this week. However, doctors and other healthcare workers have expressed some worries about the lack of clarity and planning around the shift.
Government officials said the situation was "fluid", and depended on the rollout readiness and regulatory approvals.
Just weeks into the rollout of vaccines to combat Covid-19, researchers are shifting their focus to a new class of potential shots to take on the threat posed by fast-spreading mutations, Bloomberg reported.
Variants identified in Africa, Europe and South America are pushing scientists in the UK and elsewhere to target multiple versions of the pathogen in a single shot and perhaps head off more lethal foes that may emerge.
A variant that arose in South Africa has already shown itself capable of partially evading defenses raised by several vaccines.
The country paused rolling out a shot from AstraZeneca Plc because it offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness cause by the mutant, called B.1.351. With a spreading virus comes an increased risk of more alarming mutations.
"We cannot be complacent that we’ve got the vaccines we need and it’s just a matter of time to ending the pandemic – it’s not," said Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which has worked to accelerate development of Covid inoculations.
"We’re in a race with the virus and we’ve got to get ahead of it."
Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have said they’re starting work on developing booster shots or other efforts to bolster their vaccines. AstraZeneca and partner Oxford aim to have a tweaked version tailored to new variants available by fall.