JOHANNESBURG – South Africa will start vaccinating front-line health workers next week with a shot that is still in testing — an unorthodox strategy announced Wednesday after officials abandoned plans to use another vaccine that a small study suggests is only minimally effective against the variant dominant in the country.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said South Africa would switch to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and, at least for now, not use Oxford-AstraZeneca's — which has been heralded as one of the most promising for the developing world because it's cheaper and does not require freezer storage like some other leading vaccines.
The world is watching South Africa's vaccination strategy intently since there are increasing concerns that new variants — not just the one first detected here — might evade vaccines, making it harder to bring an eventual end to the pandemic. The variant now dominant in South Africa is more contagious, experts say, and it recently drove a devastating resurgence of cases.
A small study that suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine was poor at preventing mild to moderate disease caused by that variant threw the country's vaccination campaign into disarray this week just as it was about to start. Experts say the vaccine — the only one authorized for general use in South Africa — may still prevent severe disease.
But officials quickly turned their focus to the one-shot J&J vaccine — which has only been approved for use in studies in South Africa and, in fact, hasn't yet been authorized for general use in any country. The company has applied for emergency use permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and South Africa's regulatory authority.
Mkhize, in a nationally broadcast address, assured the public that the J&J vaccine is safe, pointing to the fact that it has been tested in 44,000 people so far. It will now be used to launch a drive to inoculate the country's 1.25 million health workers, he said.
A clinical study of the vaccine in South Africa, part of international trials, showed it was 57% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 in a test conducted when the variant was dominant. It provides even better protection against severe disease, with 85% efficacy after 28 days.
But one nurse at a Soweto hospital said the switch made him and some of his colleagues feel like they were being used “as guinea pigs.”