GENEVA (AP) — Independent experts advising the World Health Organization about immunization on Wednesday recommended using AstraZeneca’s vaccine even in countries that turned up worrying coronavirus variants in their populations. The WHO experts’ advice is used by health care officials worldwide but doesn’t amount to a green light for the United Nations and its partners to ship the vaccine to countries that have signed up to receive the shots through a global initiative. That approval could come after separate WHO group meetings on Friday and Monday to assess whether an emergency-use listing for the AstraZeneca vaccine is warranted.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is essential because it forms the bulk of the stockpile acquired so far by the U.N.-backed effort known as COVAX, which aims to deploy coronavirus vaccines to people globally. COVAX plans to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine worldwide later this month, but that is contingent on WHO approval for the shot, vaccine stocks, and countries’ readiness to receive it.
But the vaccine has faced rising concerns. After an early study suggested that it might be less effective against a variant first seen in South Africa, the South African government scrambled to tweak its COVID-19 vaccination program.
“Even if there is a reduction in the possibility of this vaccine having a full impact in its protection capacity, especially against severe disease, there is no reason not to recommend its use even in countries that have the circulation of the variants,” said Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, chair of the WHO’s expert group.
Instead of rolling out 1 million AstraZeneca doses as planned, South Africa’s health minister said Wednesday that the government would start immunizing health workers with the still-unlicensed shot from Johnson & Johnson. The expert group’s recommendations about the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed at Oxford University in Britain, largely mirror those issued earlier by the European Medicines Agency and Britain’s drug regulator. Cravioto said the AstraZeneca vaccine should be used in older age groups despite the lack of reliable data, similar to advise from the EMA and Britain.