Coronavirus Global situation

AstraZeneca jabs safe for those over 65: WHO experts

Vaccine can also be used in countries with variants as benefits outweigh risks: Expert

Ms Olga D'arc Pimentel, 72, getting a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on the banks of the Rio Negro in Amazonas state, Brazil, on Tuesday. World Health Organisation experts are awaiting more specific data on the vaccine's efficacy in people over 65,
Ms Olga D'arc Pimentel, 72, getting a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on the banks of the Rio Negro in Amazonas state, Brazil, on Tuesday. World Health Organisation experts are awaiting more specific data on the vaccine's efficacy in people over 65, but noted it "would not be appropriate" to wait with recommendations.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

GENEVA • The AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccine can be used for people aged over 65, and also where coronavirus variants of concern are circulating, World Health Organisation (WHO) experts have said, soothing fears about the jab.

The WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (Sage) on Wednesday issued interim recommendations for when and how to use the two-shot vaccine, which has yet to receive WHO emergency-use authorisation.

The announcement came after the vaccine suffered setbacks, raising questions about whether it should be used on older people, or in places where a variant of the virus first found in South Africa is circulating.

Sage chief Alejandro Cravioto acknowledged the lack of data on the vaccine's efficacy for people aged above 65, which has prompted a number of countries to withhold recommending its use in older people - who are by far the most vulnerable to the virus.

But the experts concluded that given its performance with younger adults, "it is likely that the vaccine will be found to be efficacious in older persons. The trial data indicates that the vaccine is safe for this age group".

Dr Cravioto told journalists: "We feel that the response of this group cannot be any different from groups of a younger age."

Sage, he said, recommends it be used "for (those) 18 years and above, without an upper age limit".

Dr Cravioto said the experts were awaiting more specific data on the vaccine's efficacy in people over 65, but noted it "would not be appropriate" to wait with its recommendations.

"We have thousands of people dying," he said.

"Anything we can do to use a product that might reduce that is totally justified, even if the information is not as complete as we would like."

The experts also said they had discussed the effectiveness of the vaccine when faced with emerging coronavirus variants of concern, and in particular the one first detected in South Africa.

South Africa has decided to put off using AstraZeneca jabs in a planned vaccination programme over concerns about their efficacy against the variant. The alarm was raised when a South African study concluded the AstraZeneca vaccine provided only "minimal" protection against mild to moderate Covid-19 caused by the variant.

But the WHO insisted more data was needed, pointing to the study's scope, methodology and small size.

Sage also recommended that the vaccine could be used "even if variants are present in a country".

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the benefits would "far outweigh" any risks, as variants may not be the predominant strains circulating in that country.

The Sage experts also said the vaccine proved more effective when the interval between the doses was extended to between eight and 12 weeks.

Under the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) system, the AstraZeneca vaccine accounts for almost all of the 337.2 million doses that Covax is preparing to ship before July to 145 countries, covering 3 per cent of their combined population.

The Covax system was set up by WHO, the Gavi vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to procure jabs and ensure their equitable distribution worldwide.

However, the AstraZeneca jab first needs emergency-use authorisation from the WHO, which is set to make a decision next week. So far, only the Pfizer vaccine has received the WHO stamp of approval.

Gavi chief executive Seth Berkley called Sage's announcement, which clears a path towards authorisation, "excellent news".

"We will continue with our plans to roll this vaccine out worldwide," he said.

But Mr Thomas Cueni, head of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said: "We warn against setting unrealistic expectations, given the inherent risk of vaccine development and the complexity of scaling up manufacturing from scratch."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2021, with the headline 'AstraZeneca jabs safe for those over 65: WHO experts '. Subscribe