Australia approves AstraZeneca as South Africa

Australia’s medical regulator recently granted provisional approval for AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, giving the country’s national inoculation program a boost starting next week.

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The approval came as Australia’s second most populous state approached the likely end of a five-day snap-lockdown triggered by a new cluster of cases.

The federal government said it had ordered enough of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will usually be manufactured in Australia, to cover the country’s 25 million people.

Canberra also ordered enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which is manufactured offshore, for a fifth of the population.

“Australia now has two safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines available,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a news conference.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly had previously acknowledged concerns about the relatively low efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine of around 62%, acknowledging that it may not be enough to achieve flock immunity.

The first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has a 95% efficacy and has already been approved, arrived in Australia on Monday and authorities are planning the first vaccinations for February 22, Reuters reported.

The first batch of AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be manufactured abroad, is expected to arrive in March. The bulk of the AstraZeneca vaccine will then be manufactured in Australia, which the authorities have said will protect the country from demand shock abroad.

At the same time, the state of Victoria, home to a quarter of Australia’s population, recently approached a deadlock. “This strategy works,” Prime Minister Daniel Andrews told reporters. “We are well placed to make changes tomorrow night. The following 24 hours will be crucial.”

Andrews later confirmed that most of Melbourne’s pandemic restrictions would be lifted by midnight on Wednesday, after no new infections were detected within the last 24-hour period, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Victoria had entered its third lockdown on Friday after an outbreak linked to a quarantine hotel, which involved 19 cases.

The repeal of measures means that the Australian Open tennis tournament, which is being held in the state capital Melbourne, can resume access for spectators who were locked out.

Australia has reported a total of just under 29,000 COVID-19 cases and 909 deaths, with border closures and rapid tracking systems helping to keep the number relatively low compared to other developed countries.

South Africa’s vaccine problem

Meanwhile, South Africa, which had halted its launch of AstraZeneca’s vaccine after data revealed efficacy problems, announced plans to share 1 million of these doses with other African countries, Reuters reported.

Preliminary experimental data showed that AstraZeneca’s vaccine offered minimal protection against mild to moderate disease from South Africa’s dominant COVID-19 variant, called B.1.351, which has been observed to be much more contagious than previous virus strains.

Anban Pillay, deputy director general of the Department of Health, said South Africa plans to share the 1 million AstraZeneca shots they received earlier this month from the Serum Institute of India via the African Union (AU).

“The doses will be shared with the countries on the continent … via the AU,” Pillay told Reuters, adding that the government would look to recover money spent on the AstraZeneca vaccine but still complete how to do it.

He said it was not true that South Africa had asked the Serum Institute to withdraw the doses, as reported by the Indian newspaper The Economic Times.

After abandoning AstraZeneca, the country decided to switch to another plan and start inoculating healthcare professionals with Johnson & Johnson’s alternative vaccine, a program launched on Wednesday as a healthcare provider became the first in the country to receive a COVID-19 -vaccine dos. State broadcaster SABC shared the film, according to Reuters.

The vaccination started after 80,000 Johnson & Johnson shots arrived in the country late Tuesday, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported, and up to 500,000 health workers could be vaccinated in total in the study, according to government officials.

South African Medical Association (SAMA) president Angelique Coetzee said vaccinations would take place in hospitals in each of the country’s nine provinces. About two-thirds of the doses would go to the public health worker and one-third to those in the private sector.

“I can also say that we have in fact secured enough doses to vaccinate all the people who will need to be vaccinated in South Africa,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told lawmakers without saying how he arrived at that calculation.

The government had originally planned to vaccinate 40 million people, or two-thirds of the population, to achieve a certain level of herd immunity, but it is not clear if that goal still stands.

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