JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa has suspended the rollout of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine, its health minister said on Tuesday, after U.S. federal health agencies recommended pausing its use because of rare cases of blood clots.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the pause there was expected to be a matter of days. Six women under 50 developed rare blood clots in the United States among more than six million people given the J&J shot so far.
“I held urgent consultations with our scientists, who have advised that we cannot take the decision by the FDA lightly,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told reporters.
“We have determined to voluntarily suspend our rollout until the causal relationship between the development of clots and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is sufficiently interrogated,” Mkhize added, saying there had been no reports of such clots in South Africa after roughly 290,000 vaccinations.
Following the FDA news, J&J said it was delaying the rollout of the vaccine to Europe.
South Africa’s health regulator approved J&J’s one-shot vaccine two weeks ago, but it has only been given to health workers in a research study so far. The government expects to receive its first batch of commercial doses later this month, as part of a deal with J&J for 31 million doses.
Mkhize said the government had negotiated an additional 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from Pfizer, meaning 30 million shots of that two-dose vaccine had now been secured.
“This also reassures us that, in the extremely unlikely event that Johnson & Johnson rollout is completely halted, we will not have any impediment to proceed with phase two of the rollout with Pfizer,” he said.
With the J&J and Pfizer deals, South Africa has enough vaccines for more than 40 million people out of its population of around 60 million. It has also made a downpayment to global vaccine distribution scheme COVAX.
South Africa is the worst-hit country on the African continent for recorded coronavirus infections and deaths, suffering from a more infectious virus variant called 501Y.V2.
The country had planned to kick-off its vaccination campaign in February with AstraZeneca’s vaccine. But it put plans to use that shot on hold after a small local trial showed it offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2 variant.
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