NOMPU SIZIBA: Following the disheartening news that studies have now shown that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is not able to effectively prevent mild to moderate cases of the 501Y variant Version 2, commonly known as the South African variant, and the government’s subsequent decision to put on hold the vaccination rollout with the same vaccine, we speak to a businesswoman who has been invested in the creation of the AstraZeneca vaccine. My colleague, Ryk van Niekerk, caught up with Magda Wierzycka, a co-CEO at the passive investment company Sygnia.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Magda, Thank you so much for joining me. What do you think of this development?
MAGDA WIERZYCKA: Hi, Ryk. Obviously the news is disappointing in that I think we’ve had much help in the AstraZeneca vaccine, particularly … because of the pricing level. It is the most cost-effective vaccine we could have gained access to potentially. There are a couple of points.
I think one is that the study that has been done has been done on a very small size of population. I think it was 1 100 people that were actually vaccinated with the existing AstraZeneca vaccine. We are looking at South Africa having procured 1.3 million doses of the vaccine. Given that there are no results in terms of whether the vaccine works against severe cases of the South African strain of Covid-19, I think it would be a pity not to waste the 1.5 million doses as opposed to actually using them to vaccinate medical personnel right now, and then almost have a much bigger sample size that you are observing on a live basis in terms of the effectiveness of the vaccine.
But, having said that, Oxford has already said that it is working on a variation of the vaccine which would work against the new variant or the new variants, including the Brazilian variant, and that they should have a new version of the vaccine available by autumn. In fact, I heard Sir John Bell saying [by] September 1 they should have the new formula, if you like, available.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: Magda, have Oxford or AstraZeneca been involved or have they done their own research into the effectiveness of this vaccine against the South African variant?
MAGDA WIERZYCKA: Ryk, I believe that the vaccine trial, that of the testing that was done, was done as a collaborative effort between the University of Oxford and the University of the Witwatersrand, because the actual trial has to be done in a geographical location where the strain of the virus it’s testing against is prevalent, because in all of these trials you cannot actually take people and intentionally expose them to the virus. So they have to come into contact with the virus though natural means.
And, as a consequence, you actually have to run these trials in the location where there is a high probability of the individual people who have been injected with the vaccine – I don’t want to call them subjects – people who have kindly volunteered for these trials where there’s a high probability of their coming into contact with the virus. So the trials were run in South Africa.
What I think is very positive – let me rephrase, nothing is positive in the world of Covid-19. But in the UK, they have now picked up some very random testing over 147 cases of, I prefer to call it, the 501-V2 variant as opposed to the South African variant. And in fact the same variant has been picked up in I think 67 countries now. But because it has been picked up in the UK, there are growing fears that it is obviously much more prevalent than what the testing shows, and consequently there is much more impetus on Oxford to adjust the vaccine to work against the South African variant. That obviously is positive for South Africa because we can then start focusing on procuring the new vaccine.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: The key is, when will we get the new vaccine that will be a lot more effective. What has been the reaction from AstraZeneca? I’m sure you’ve been in contact with them. How do they view this research finding?
MAGDA WIERZYCKA: Well, obviously they are disappointed, because ideally you would have liked to have seen a much greater level of effectiveness of the vaccine against the mild and moderate versions of the disease. But again, being an actuary and a statistician, I do believe that a sample of 1 100 people is a very, very small statistical sample.
Nonetheless, they are hopeful; and it is a hope because, again, they tested the vaccine on very young people. The median age was 31. They are hopeful that the vaccine can still be effective against severe versions of Covid-19, which is why I said right at the beginning that I think we shouldn’t waste the 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. We should actually start inoculating frontline personnel.
The vaccine is safe. There are no safety issues. And the same thing will happen in the UK.
They’re rolling out the standard AstraZeneca vaccine as is (in the UK), and then the booster shots which they will be developing will cover the South African variant.
So we could take exactly the same approach, use the 1.5 million doses that we have available, while focusing on procuring the new version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which, if you take into account manufacturing processes, unfortunately will probably only be available in November/December.
And at the same time, the only alternative really, because the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax are also showing not fantastic results. So the vaccines that potentially would work in South Africa, just because they have such high level of efficacy, are the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the RNA vaccines. But there is the logistical problem of storing things at ‑70 degrees, and the cost is astronomical.
So, given that we’ve just gone through a wave in which the medical community believes that the level of natural immunity that has developed in South Africa is probably in the range of between 20% to 30% already. So 20% to 30% of the population already has antibodies. Those antibodies are likely to last – again it’s guesswork, because they’re not sure – between three and six months.
We do have some level of natural protection that has developed in South Africa because we have gone through these two kind of waves already.
RYK VAN NIEKERK: But there are a few other aspects which I am concerned about. Number one, how high on the priority list is the South African strain or is AstroZenica. Will we get the due attention from AstraZeneca and the research to actually find a vaccine that is really effective?
And number two, we’re talking about the end of the year here – October, November, December. What happens if we see another mutation?
MAGDA WIERZYCKA: A very good question. First of all, in terms of priority, it’s priority number one. And it’s priority number one because these variations and mutations in the virus at a worldwide problem, and it’s a little bit like governments playing Whack-a-mole. So in terms of the UK, they are acutely aware that obviously the South African variant is already present in the UK, and the scientists at Oxford are already working on a new version of the vaccine. So it’s sky-high priority, definitely. What the South African government needs to do is it needs to prioritise the procurement of the vaccine, which is a completely different debate – because obviously we were not very successful in the first attempt.
Now, in terms of the timelines…the AstraZeneca new variant vaccine will only be available in November/December. So I think we need to prepare for another phase or cycle of the virus.
And I think there, again, the medical community is predicting May/June/July as potentially there being a third wave. So potentially a third version of some kind of lockdown measures will be imposed.
But, having said that, if you look at what has happened in the second wave, the second wave – and not to, again, in any way underestimate the impact that it has on families who have lost loved ones – but if you actually just look at it from a very kind of top-down perspective, the second wave hit South Africa very quickly, very sharply, and waned very quickly, which is actually a positive. It’s not a wave that has lingered on and on and on. It literally rose up, and the numbers started falling down dramatically. So I think that in any kind of a third wave there’s a potential that a similar thing happens, and that the natural immunity that the South African population already has, be it well below that required for what’s called herd immunity, and the fact that so many people have had Covid already, means that they do have antibodies, they do have natural protection; and hence potentially the impact of any third wave will be much smaller than the previous two.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Magda Wierzycka. She’s a co-CEO at Sygnia.