Health Ministry scrambles after AstraZeneca vaccine failure

Andrew Kathindi

The Ministry of Health and Social Services (MOHSS) is scrambling for answers after it emerged that the AstraZeneca vaccine, the same vaccine Namibia is expected to receive through the COVAX facility, is not as effective against the new variant of COVID-19.

MOHSS Executive Director, Ben Nangombe, told Windhoek Observer that the ministry’s technical team is meeting urgently. AstraZeneca is manufactured by a British–Swedish pharmaceutical company.

“My technical team is discussing the matter right now in the context of those developments. We will then issue a position and the way forward, based on the available information. We are dealing with it as a matter of urgency.”

Minister Kalumbi Shangula had previously stated that he suspected that the COVID-19 variant, which was discovered in South Africa, was already spreading in Namibia. The variant is believed to have been the cause of the spike in positive cases towards the end of last year, and increased mortalities.

Nangombe, however, said the ministry could not yet confirm if the variant was here or not. “We’ll know in the coming week.” Government has thus far spent N$28 million, which is 15 percent of a larger N$193 million for the vaccine. Nangombe argued that Namibia would be within its right to ask for a different drug. “We have not spent money on the AstraZeneca vaccine. We have spent money to participate in the COVAX facility, which has many vaccines.”

“We can surely state our preferences. As a sovereign country, we have that right. Because the rollout of the vaccine depends on a number of factors. I don’t think it can be that we’re forced to take a particular vaccine,” he added.

Nangombe further stated that as the AstraZeneca vaccine is not yet available in the country, the technical team will study available information to decide whether to procure it or not.

“The information on the vaccine is available on various platforms. The drugs are reviewed internationally. The Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have information on the drug and that is the information that we’ll have to review. This information is evolving all the time, based on what is available.”

According to Nangombe, Namibia still expects the vaccine in the middle of this month, as per the communication delivered by the COVAX facility.

Meantime the South African government has suspended a roll-out campaign of the AstraZeneca vaccine after a study conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand discovered that the vaccine was less effective against the new variant of COVID-19.

South Africa acquired one million doses of the vaccine, which are now expected to expire by early April.

CDC Namibia Country Director, Dr Eric Dziuban, previously told the Windhoek Observer that studies were ongoing on the effectiveness of the vaccines on the COVID-19 variant.

“People are studying the issue right now of how well the vaccines work when exposed to the new variants. So far there is no evidence that the vaccine is less effective in these cases, but more studies are ongoing.”

This comes as the country has thus far recorded 34 973 cumulative cases with 375 deaths.

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