New studies show the Astra Zeneca vaccine, the workhorse of Australia’s vaccine program, is just 10% effective against the virulent South African Covid strain, which reached Indonesian shores this week. Callum Foote investigates.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, which Australia has primarily stockpiled, is only 10% effective against the fast-spreading South African coronavirus variant, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The Pfizer vaccine is 75% effective.
The South African variant has been detected in Indonesia, with cases in both Jakarta and Bali, as recently as Tuesday.
The South African variant caused half of all Covid cases in Qatar, according to viral genome sequencing conducted between late-February and mid-March. Some 44.5% of cases were caused by the British variant (B.1.1.7 variant).
The study by the South African Medical Research Council Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Units, in partnership with other scientific groups, found that the full two-dose regimen of AstraZeneca’s (ChAd0x1 nCov-19 – AZ) vaccine is only 10.4% effective against the South African variant of Covid-19 (B.1.351 variant). The study was published on March 16.
By contrast, a roundup of studies emerging from Qatar’s third wave published this week shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (BNT162b2) is 75% effective against the South African strain.
In early February, South Africa suspended its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, pausing one million doses, following concerns about the reduced efficacy of the Astra Zeneca vaccine from the threatening new variant.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) said that South Africa’s movements were a worrying development.
“This is something to be taken seriously and thought through,” said University of Sydney vaccine expert Professor Robert Booy.
The South African variant also shares key characteristics with a variant that has emerged in Brazil, with fears that AstraZeneca’s vaccine will have similarly low efficacy rates for that variant.
Neither the South African nor Brazilian variants have made it to Australian shores.
AstraZeneca is the only vaccine being manufactured in Australia, at 1 million doses per week using CSL’s Melbourne facility.
Manufacturing of the Pfizer vaccine is strictly restricted to Pfizer-controlled centralized manufacturing hubs in Europe and the US.
Scientists have been calling for an Australian company to be licensed to manufacture the Pfizer vaccine.
A Pfizer spokeswoman told Michael West Media that the company was not currently in discussions with any Australian companies or governments. Pfizer issued a statement saying that “once the pandemic supply phase is over and we enter a phase of regular supplies, Pfizer will certainly evaluate all additional opportunities available. ”
Approached by Australian governments?
However, she refused to say whether Pfizer had turned down approaches by Australian governments or businesses about manufacturing the Pfizer vaccine domestically.
Pfizer is on course to make a US$26 billion profit in 2021 due to a surge of in-house production. Pfizer also note that they are on track to manufacture over 2 billion vaccines this year to meet global need.
Pfizer’s claims that the vaccine can only be manufactured in America and Europe is contrary to the opinions of many Australian experts, such as Archa Fox, an mRNA researcher at the University of Western Australia.
“It is actually not that complicated to do from a scientific point of view.”
“The technology, the equipment — it exists, we can buy it, we just need, essentially, the will,” Dr Fox told the ABC in April.
RMIT University professor of immunology Magdalena Plebanski agrees.
“Scientifically, we are mature and ready to take on a challenge like that as a country,” she says.
“There’s nothing really stopping Australia from going down that pathway.”
Both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines were highly effective against the British variant, with a 90% efficacy rate.
Michael West Media has contacted both Health Minister Greg Hunt and shadow health minister Mark Butler.