'Huge global problem' with Australia's 54 million Covid vaccine doses

New research indicating the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is less effective in fighting the highly-infectious South African strain potentially poses “a huge global issue”, a University of Melbourne epidemiologist has warned.

The vaccine makes up the largest percentage of Australia’s vaccine acquisitions with 54 million doses and will be rolled out from March, the federal government says.

Yet South Africa has suspended plans to inoculate its front-line health care workers with the jab after a small clinical trial by Oxford University suggested it isn’t effective in preventing mild to moderate illness from the variant dominant in the country.

The variant appears more infectious and is driving a deadly resurgence of the disease in the country, currently accounting for more than 90 per cent of the Covid-19 cases, health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Sunday night (local time).

A woman prepares to receive a vaccine.
New research has cast doubt over the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Source: Getty Images, file

Scientists will now study whether or not the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective in preventing severe disease and death against the variant, Mr Mkhize said.

Other vaccines have shown reduced efficacy against the variant, but have provided good protection from serious disease and death.

Variants likely to spread to Australia

Health Minister Greg Hunt downplayed the development, telling 2GB on Monday the UK was still seeing “very strong results” from its rollout.

However the University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Nancy Baxter said the concerning development posed a risk to Australians if surges in cases overseas weren’t brought under control.

“It's definitely a huge global issue and what it emphasises is that if we don't control Covid-19 everywhere, we don't control it anywhere,” she told ABC News Breakfast.

“If the disease is running rampant in a country, then these variants are going to develop. And it's not going to stay in that country. It's going to spread out.

“So we can protect ourselves as best as we want just in our isolated, our own country but if we don't make sure that everyone in the world gets a vaccine that's effective, eventually we are going to get a new variant that outsmarts our vaccines and we're going to be in trouble again.”

Two people wearing masks walk across a bridge in Perth on February 6, 2021.
People wearing face masks in Perth. Source: Getty Images

Last week Dean of the School of Health at the US’s Brown University, Dr Ashish Jha, warned of a “nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic” if the vaccine is not rolled out quickly enough across the globe.

Australia will begin its roll out of 20 million Pfizer vaccines at the end of the month after acquiring a further 10 million last week.

But the effectiveness of the current AstraZeneca jab is now in question, with its developers saying they will have a modified jab to tackle the South African variant by September at the earliest.

Mr Hunt moved to reassure Australians the vaccines approved would be effective here.

"In terms of particular variants, particular countries, the world is learning about those with all vaccines, all up what we're seeing is very significant results with the vaccines that have been approved, with up to 100 per cent protection on the early data that we've seen in the clinical trial results for serious illness and hospitalisation,” he said.

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