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WHO Weighs In On AstraZeneca Vaccine Effectiveness

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The World Health Organization has just weighed in on how the vaccine made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University should be used in places with new variants of the coronavirus. That vaccine ran into some trouble this past weekend when a small study out of South Africa showed it wasn't very effective against the new dominant strain of the virus there. Joining us now, NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien to talk more about this. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: The world's been waiting on WHO authorization of this very important vaccine. What did they say today?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, today, this was not yet the full authorization. They were offering interim guidance, but it was very important. And basically, they're saying, yes, the AstraZeneca vaccine can still be used. And they're basically saying that this study showed that there was reduced efficacy on this dominant strain that has started to be spreading in South Africa, but even so - the limited evidence, almost no evidence that it was preventing severe disease. So based on what they're seeing, they're saying that countries, including South Africa, should push forward with using this vaccine. Here's Katherine O'Brien. She's the head of immunization at the WHO.

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KATHERINE O'BRIEN: The advice from SAGE and taken on board now by WHO is to proceed with the vaccine even in the setting of variants.

BEAUBIEN: And that was the key takeaway. Keep proceeding with these vaccines, even where we're seeing these new variants popping up.

MARTIN: So, I mean, given that, how do they justify going ahead?

BEAUBIEN: Well, they say that that study was a small study. And it - that's - they didn't answer the question about, you know, are old people protected by this vaccine or not. And they believe that the AstraZeneca vaccine, even in what looks like, you know, the worst place in the world right now in terms of variants, South Africa, it still offers some protection, and it hopefully will keep older people from getting really sick. And that's why they're saying they should keep moving forward with it until there's more evidence.

MARTIN: So let's remind listeners this vaccine is not on the list of vaccines slated for use in the U.S., right?

BEAUBIEN: Right. Yeah, that's correct.

MARTIN: But it's still...

BEAUBIEN: At least not yet - not yet.

MARTIN: Right, not yet. But it's still very important to much of the world.

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. It is by far the most significant vaccine in terms of doses that are expected to be delivered this year. There are purchase orders for more than 2 million (ph) doses of this vaccine, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. The next leading manufacturer globally is Pfizer, and their commitments are about half of that, roughly a billion (ph) doses. And the majority of AstraZeneca's vaccines are slated to go to low- and middle-income countries.

The WHO's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, she warned front-line workers and people who are at risk of getting COVID, don't shop around. She said, don't wait for the perfect vaccine.

MARTIN: So...

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SOUMYA SWAMINATHAN: The vaccine now is much better than waiting for something potentially that may come down the road after six months or a year. So anything that's been approved by WHO that's available in the country, please do take it.

BEAUBIEN: So there's really just a sense of urgency. She's saying if you're getting offered a vaccine, go for it. Use them while they still work.

MARTIN: What happens at this point?

BEAUBIEN: So right now, we're waiting on the WHO to actually offer emergency use listing, which we're expecting that to come in the next couple of weeks.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Jason Beaubien, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.