Mutating variants a threat to the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines

Mutating variants of the coronavirus such as those recently discovered in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Brazil and other countries, are a serious threat to the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out by some countries across the world, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.

Neighbouring South Africa, which recently received its 1 million first consignment from India has since put on hold its planned roll-out of AstraZeneca (AZ)/Oxford University’s Covid-19 vaccine after new study results showed that the jab provides ‘minimal’ protection against the SA variant.

The research, conducted by researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and Oxford University, found that a two-dose regimen of the vaccine – also known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 – provides only minimal protection against mild-to-moderate COVID-19 caused by the SA or B.1.351 variant.

Briefing member states on Covid-19 Thursday, World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the virus continued to circulate widely, adding new variants were emerging.

“Every time the virus mutates – no matter where in the world – it has the potential to blunt the effectiveness of our vaccines, medicines, and tests,” bemoaned Ghebreyesus.  

“Recently, there have been concerns over a study that showed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was found to be minimally effective at preventing mild to moderate disease against a new variant of COVID-19. We still do not know if the vaccine continues to prevent severe illness caused by the variant, however. These results are a reminder that we need to do everything we can to reduce the circulation of the virus using proven public health measures.”

The WHO chief said at the same time, the world has to be ready to adapt vaccines in order to remain effective, as is done with flu vaccines, which are updated twice a year.

“Manufacturers will have to adjust to the evolution of the virus, taking into account the latest variants for future shots, including boosters,” said Ghebreyesus.  

“The emerging variants underscore why it is so important to scale up manufacturing and roll out vaccines as quickly and as widely as possible, while prioritising frontline health and care workers and those most at risk.”

He said WHO and its partners in the ACT Accelerator have laid the groundwork, adding they have created a dose-sharing mechanism, set up rapid processes for emergency use listing, set up indemnification and no-fault compensation mechanisms and completed readiness assessments in almost all AMC countries.

“But I see three major threats to the success of the ACT Accelerator and COVAX, which need our urgent attention,” he decried.

“First, the financing gap for the ACT Accelerator stands at more than US$27 billion for 2021. 

The longer this gap goes unmet, the harder it becomes to understand why, given this is a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars that have been mobilised for stimulus packages in G20 countries.”

Ghebreyesus went on to call on all countries to respect COVAX contracts and not compete with them.

“Some countries continue to sign bilateral deals while other countries have nothing,” bemoaned the WHO chief.

“We need urgent scale-up in manufacturing to increase the volume of vaccines. That means innovative partnerships including tech transfer, licensing and other mechanisms to address production bottlenecks.”

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