WHO official: AstraZeneca ‘effective’ even in areas with new virus variants

© Reuters – Dado Ruvic

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective even in areas with cases of the South African variant of SARS-CoV-2.

“We still believe and the WHO released a statement saying we still believe that the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective even in places where you have a large proportion of cases which could be attributed to the South African variant,” Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO Representative to the Philippines, said in a virtual briefing.

Abeyasinghe’s statement was based on a study that showed AstraZeneca shots offer as little as 10% protection against the B.1.351 variant, which was first detected in South Africa. He assured the WHO is looking “very carefully” at these reports but noted that the study was conducted on a “very limited scale” with a sample of fewer than 2,000 people.

“What it showed was that there was evidence of mild and moderate disease following AstraZeneca vaccines. Of course, as I’ve mentioned, the purpose of the vaccine is to prevent disease and deaths,” he added.

The WHO official said there is “no evidence” yet of a large-scale presence of the South African variant in the Philippines and the country has a window of opportunity to protect as many people as possible and limit the possibility of further transmission of the new variants.

As long as there is “no certainty” in the studies conducted, Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, for her part, said the Philippines would carry on with its vaccine rollout and use the AstraZeneca vaccines which arrived Thursday evening.

“According to the WHO and our experts, this is the only way for us to eventually beat these variants together with the minimum public health standards,” she shared, adding that “no matter what publications say. whether it has lesser efficacy, as long as we have no certainty, we will continue to use the vaccine.”

Vergeire said the Philippine government is also monitoring studies and reports on the South African variant. “We are considering these reports. On our part, we like to always err on the side of caution but not to the extent of saying vaccination would be ineffective),” she said.

The 487,200 vials of AstraZeneca’s vaccine the Philippines  received Thursday night from the COVAX Facility were donated by Germany, the European Union, Norway, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, and Greece.

The vaccines came from Belgium, stopping over in Bangkok before the arrival in Manila. Their distribution will immediately roll out after repackaging.