WHO approves Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID vaccine for emergency use

Shot developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca is cheaper and easier to distribute than some other offerings.

A health worker holds a multiple-dose vial containing the vaccine against COVID-19 by British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in Genoa, northern Italy, February 10, 2021 [File: Luca Zennaro/EPA]

The United Nations’ health agency has listed the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and drugmaker AstraZeneca for emergency use, days after a panel of experts recommended the use of the products in settings where variants of the coronavirus are circulating.

A statement by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday said it had approved the relatively inexpensive shot produced by AstraZeneca-SKBio (South Korea) and the Serum Institute of India.

“We now have all the pieces in place for the rapid distribution of vaccines. But we still need to scale up production,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told a news briefing.

“We continue to call for COVID-19 vaccine developers to submit their dossiers to WHO for review at the same time as they submit them to regulators in high-income countries,” he said.

The WHO’s listing came days after its Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization provided interim recommendations on the vaccine, saying two doses with an interval of eight to 12 weeks should be given to all adults and can be used in all countries, including those where a new variant of the coronavirus first identified in South Africa was present.

The country last week paused part of its roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine after data from a small trial showed it did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2 variant.

The WHO’s review found that the AstraZeneca vaccine met the “must-have” criteria for safety, and its efficacy benefits outweighed its risks.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca shot has been hailed because it is cheaper and can be stored at normal fridge temperatures. This makes it easier to distribute than some rivals, including the one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which was listed for emergency use by the WHO late in December.

Nearly 109 million people have been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and more than 2.5 million have died.

Doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine make up the lion’s share of doses in the COVAX coronavirus vaccine sharing initiative.

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands said COVAX is a project that is designed to provide equitable access to vaccines for low and middle-income countries.

More than 330 million doses of the shot due to begin being rolled out to poorer countries from the end of February.

“The countries that currently have no access to vaccines whatsoever can start vaccinating their health workers and their most at risk groups,” Challands said, speaking from East Sussex.

“The fear was with the whole COVID-19 pandemic is that it would be the richest countries that would buy up all the vaccines and that there wouldn’t be enough to go around.”

A health official receives a dose of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, at Infectious Diseases Hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 29, 2021 [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies