Millions of AstraZeneca shots 'ineffective' if South Africa variant in PH not contained, expert warns

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 3) — The millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses purchased by the national government, local government units, and private firms may not do its job of protecting the public against COVID-19 if the B.1.351 variant first detected in South Africa continues to spread in the country, an expert warned on Wednesday.

OCTA Research fellow and molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco quoted several studies showing that the South Africa variant lowers the efficacy of some COVID-19 vaccines. He specifically stated the vaccines made by British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical Oxford-AstraZeneca, saying the variant dramatically decreases the vaccine's efficacy from 70% to mere 10%.

"It's no different than injecting water into the patients. With 10% protection, basically, most people would still get mild and moderate COVID-19," he said in a media briefing.

The Philippines is set to receive its second batch of vaccines on Thursday — 487,200 doses of AstraZeneca through the COVAX facility. This is on top of more than 17 million doses procured by the government and private firms through tripartite agreements.

Austriaco, who is developing an oral COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, said the presence of the South Africa variant could also affect the rollout of the national vaccination program if the spread is not cut off.

"If we do not eliminate the B.1.531 variant in the Philippines, the 17 million doses of AstraZeneca that we have already bought — but have not yet arrived — will be ineffective against fighting this variant," Austriaco said.

The OCTA fellow added, "We have just begun (our vaccination program) and we have already been hit in the stomach by a variant that — if not controlled, eliminated from the islands — will make it more difficult for us to vaccinate."

Vaccination program under review

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted that the detection of the South Africa variant "will have an impact on our vaccination program." He said the government will ask AstraZeneca for efficacy data against the South Africa variant and the country's vaccine expert panel will study the next steps of the ongoing inoculation drive.

"I think we will have to have a representation to AstraZeneca to disclose all the information and all the data because they owe it to the countries and governments and the private sector that have ordered those vaccines from them," he said in a separate briefing.

Dr. Nina Gloriani, head of the country's vaccine expert panel, said the government needs to move fast in the fight against the COVID-19 variants. The United Kingdom and Brazil also detected more infectious variants, but the South Africa variant can be considered the "most problematic" now, Gloriani added.

"It is because the South Africa variant has so many mutations compared to the other variants," she said.

"We have to be quick in administering the vaccine so we can generate as many immune people as possible," Gloriano told CNN Philippines’ News Night. "We are racing against time."

Meanwhile, Duque said those who signified wanting to take AstraZeneca may opt to shift to Sinovac with the recent development.

Is Sinovac better vs. South Africa variant?

Austriaco said Sinovac's CoronaVac — the vaccines currently available in the country — could be more effective against the South Africa variant. He, however, stressed that the company has yet to publish its data.

He said an inactivated vaccine like CoronaVac, offers a wider protection against the B.1.531 variant compared to a viral vector vaccine like AstraZeneca. He said this makes Sinovac the better vaccine against the variant in terms of "long-term" goal."

"Inactivated vaccines historically have lower efficacy rate, but their protection is broader because you are injecting the entire virus to the patient. The other vaccine, you are injecting the spike protein or little part of spike protein. So, what happens is a slight change and your vaccine is now very poor,” he said.

Gloriani agreed, saying it’s possible CoronaVac "will not be affected so much" by the South Africa variant.

South Africa paused its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after preliminary trial data showed it offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness caused by the variant. However, the World Health Organization's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) panel recommended its use even if virus variants, including B.1.351, are present in the country.

Several studies show the B.1.351 variant has a mutation that renders some COVID-19 vaccines less effective in protecting against the coronavirus. It has a phenomenon called "immune escape," which prevents the inoculated patient from building antibodies to fight off the virus because of the presence of the E484K mutation.

Because of this, Austriaco explained that a person receiving AstraZeneca vaccines may need a booster shot to fight the variant. This would mean, a person will need to get three shots instead of the usual two to get the protection promised by the vaccine. This could make a significant dent in the already-low supply of vaccines in the country.

Austriaco shared he has received two doses of Moderna in the United States, but he was informed that he is scheduled to get a third booster shot because of the South Africa variant.

CNN Philippines' Rex Remitio and Eimor Santos contributed to this report.