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What Will Be The Fate Of The AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting of its top vaccine experts to determine whether it needs to change its guidance around the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Now, this comes after South Africa decided to delay a vaccination campaign that was supposed to start next week. South Africa made that decision after a small study called into question whether the AstraZeneca vaccine works against a variant that is now the dominant strain there. So is this a setback for AstraZeneca? Is it a detour? Is it nothing at all? NPR's Jason Beaubien is here with, hopefully, some insight on all that.

Hey, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I think I have to start by asking the big question - are these new variants mutating so fast that they are rendering the vaccine useless before we can even get it out into everybody's arms?

BEAUBIEN: You know, that's what everybody's really worried about. And I can tell you definitively that it's way too early to say that right now, that this AstraZeneca vaccine isn't useless against the variant that's spreading in southern Africa. But we are seeing some worrying signs. This was a fairly small study. It was predominantly of young, healthy South Africans. And it found that a reasonable number of people who got vaccinated still ended up getting mild cases of the disease. Like, nobody got sick - really, really sick. Nobody died. And the study wasn't even designed to test for that.

KELLY: OK.

BEAUBIEN: But this was combined with some lab studies in southern Africa that showed some other worrying signs. And there's concern that, you know, South Africa - it was supposed to be starting this mass vaccination campaign next week and was going to be the first mass vaccination campaign in all of southern, sub-Saharan Africa. And it was going to be with the AstraZeneca shot. And Salim Abdool Karim - he's an adviser to the South African government - he told the WHO today that South Africa decided to put that campaign on hold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALIM ABDOOL KARIM: We don't want to end up with a situation where we vaccinate a million people or two million people with a vaccine that may not be effective in preventing hospitalization and severe disease.

BEAUBIEN: So instead, they're going to switch to doing the mass vaccination campaign with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine into a much smaller distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine, then closely monitor that. And if there are higher rates of hospitalizations or cases among the South Africans getting AstraZeneca, then they'll deal with that at that point.

KELLY: OK, so some important, really important qualifiers you've given us. This was a very small...

BEAUBIEN: Right.

KELLY: ...Study. And AstraZeneca, which is not one of the vaccines being given out right now in the U.S., correct?

BEAUBIEN: That is correct.

KELLY: So the guidance stands. If you can get the vaccine when it's your turn, get the vaccine.

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely, in the United States. This vaccine has not been authorized yet in the United States, although the U.S. has purchased some for down the road.

KELLY: OK, but there are global implications to this. How big a deal is this development outside of South Africa?

BEAUBIEN: You know, there's sort of two parts to that. One is that this variant isn't as much of a problem outside of southern Africa, you know, at least not yet. It might become at some point in time. But the expectation is the AstraZeneca vaccine will continue to be effective in other parts of the world. The second part is that this vaccine is an incredibly important part of the global efforts to get people vaccinated, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. And if there are cracks with this vaccine, and it turns out it doesn't respond to variants very well, then that could really be problematic.

KELLY: Although why? Because couldn't other countries switch to another vaccine, just like it sounds South Africa is going to try to switch to Johnson & Johnson?

BEAUBIEN: So the problem is that right now, there just isn't enough vaccine out there or even in the pipeline. And AstraZeneca is a huge portion of both the current supply and the expected supply that's supposed to be coming in the coming months. And this is also going to be, people are hoping, sort of this vaccine workhorse. It would work well in low- and middle-income countries. It's cheap. You don't need some special, supercold fridge to store it. You know, and it's currently being made in Europe and in India and South Korea. They're manufacturing it in Argentina and Brazil. And the WHO's program to distribute vaccine equitably among 190 countries - at the moment, its plan was to depend almost entirely on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

KELLY: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting.

Thank you, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.