South Africa has scrapped plans to use the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine because it "does not prevent mild to moderate disease" of the variant that has spread widely in the country, the government said.
Health minister Zweli Mkhize announced that front-line healthcare workers will be given the unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine from next week as part of a study to see what protection it provides, particularly against the South African variant.
The single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still being tested internationally and has not been approved in any country.
In a nationally broadcast address, Mr Mkhize declared that the vaccine is safe, relying on tests of 44,000 people carried out in South Africa, the United States and Latin America.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be used to launch the first phase of South Africa’s vaccination drive in which the country’s 1.25 million health care workers will be inoculated, he said, adding that the medical workers will be closely monitored to see what protection they get from the inoculation.
“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant (dominant in South Africa) and the necessary approval processes for use in South Africa are under way,” said Mr Mkhize.
"The rollout of vaccination will proceed in the form of an implementation study with the partnership of the Medical Research Council and the National Department of Health vaccination sites across the country.
“This will provide valuable information about the pandemic in the post-vaccination community and thus, ensure early identification of breakthrough infections should they occur amongst vaccinated health workers.”
Those vaccine shots will be followed by a campaign to vaccinate an estimated 40 million people in South Africa by the end of the year.
Mr Mkhize said South Africa will be using the Pfizer vaccine and others, possibly including the Russian Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
South Africa had purchased 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The first million shots arrived this month.
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.
An added complication for the country is that its AstraZeneca doses arrived with an April 30th expiration date. South Africa is looking to swap them, Mr Mkhize said.
California surpassed New York on Tuesday as the US state with the most coronavirus deaths, a grim reminder of the pandemic's toll even as the vaccine rollout and a sharp drop in new cases buoyed hopes of life eventually returning to normal.
More than 45,000 people have died as of late Tuesday from Covid in California, the most populous of the 50 states and one of the hardest hit in recent months. New York, severely stricken in the early stages of pandemic last spring, has reported 44,693 lives lost, according to a Reuters tally.
"This is a heart-wrenching reminder that Covid-19 is a deadly virus, and we mourn alongside every Californian who has suffered the tragic loss of a loved one during this pandemic," Dr Mark Ghaly, the state's health secretary, said of the milestone in an email to Reuters.
California, home to some 40 million people, emerged as a main US epicenter of the pandemic during a year-end surge of infections and hospitalizations that swept much of the country, pushing many healthcare systems to their limits.
The United States as a whole has reported 27.25 million infections and 468,559 deaths, as of late Tuesday. Just over 79,000 U.S. patients were hospitalised with Covid-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily number since mid-November.
But in California, as in other states, the improvement obscures a march of illness, hospitalisations and deaths, which remain far higher than they were at the pandemic’s previous peak last summer.
The number of lives lost reported daily in the state has declined over the past several weeks, but remains "remarkably" high at an average of 500 fatalities per day over the past 14 days, Governor Gavin Newsom told a news conference.
About 33 million Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine to fight the coronavirus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported.
"This vaccine is the weapon that will win this war," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news briefing on Tuesday. Ten per cent of New York state residents have received the vaccine, he said.
Spain’s health ministry said on Wednesday that people under the age of 55 without major health complications who have previously contracted the coronavirus will have to wait six months from their diagnosis before receiving a vaccine.
The measure, which appears to be unique in Europe, will apply to the three vaccines currently being distributed in Spain, and is provisional pending further research.
Justifying the decision to prioritise those without a history of Covid-19, the ministry said that cases of reinfection within six months were “exceptional”.
A major British study published last week found 99 per cent of participants who had previously tested positive retained antibodies for three months, while 88 per cent still had them after six months.
"If vaccine is in short supply and they are confident that they can reliably and confidently identify previously infected people, there is some rationale to this," said Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at Britain's University of Edinburgh.
However, the time and effort involved in checking and double checking eligibility may not be worth it, she told Reuters.
People older than 55 or those with health risks that make them more vulnerable to reinfection would be exempted from the delay, the ministry said.
So far, the only people under 55 being vaccinated are healthcare professionals, according to Spain’s vaccine strategy.
Spain is distributing vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
As authorities begin to inoculate a broader section of society with the recently approved AstraZeneca shot, Madrid’s regional government said it would convert stadiums and other big venues into vaccination centres.
Elsewhere in Europe, several Italian epidemiologists have said it is useless to vaccinate those who have already been infected, but Rome has not taken any decision on whether to administer jabs to recovering patients.
France's public health agency believes there is no need to inoculate people who developed a symptomatic form of the disease, although those patients can still opt to take a shot three months after the onset of symptoms. And authorities in the Netherlands still recommend getting a jab after contracting the disease, a minimum four weeks after getting symptoms. – Reuters/AP