What Malawians need to know about AstraZeneca vaccine


Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera has announced that Malawi through the COVAX facility, finally secured doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be given to as many citizens as possible immunity against COVID-19.

The first consignment of the vaccine is expected to arrive at the end of February in readiness for roll out in March, starting with 20 percent of the population, which will prioritize frontline workers, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions.

But what do we know about the vaccine?

The Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine was created by the University of Oxford and its British-Swedish pharmaceutical company partner, AstraZeneca.

On December 30, the UK became the first country to approve the shot.

The vaccine is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus (known as an adenovirus) from chimpanzees. It has been modified to look more like coronavirus - although it can't cause illness.

When the vaccine is injected into a patient, it prompts the immune system to start making antibodies and primes it to attack any coronavirus infection.

Research has shown it is highly effective. No one given the vaccine in trials developed severe Covid or needed hospital treatment.

“The results show that the vaccine is effective against COVID-19, with in particular no severe infections and no hospitalisations in the vaccine group,” said AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot.

Unlike Pfizer's jab - which has to be kept at an extremely cold temperature (-70C) - the Oxford vaccine can be stored in a normal fridge. This makes it much easier to distribute.

When was the vaccine approved?

The vaccine was approved for use by the MHRA (the UK's regulatory body) on 30 December.

It was developed quickly because Oxford University researchers had already done a lot of work on developing a vaccine which could be adapted to tackle different diseases.

Hospitals administered the first doses to older patients early in January 2021 in the UK.

The MHRA approved the use of two full doses, which was found to be 62% effective.

And as with the other vaccines, scientists don't yet know if it stops people catching Covid - that's something they won't know until they can see the impact of vaccination over a period.

Is the Oxford vaccine as good as the Pfizer?

Trials showed the Pfizer vaccine was 95% effective, but there were differences in the way the trials were carried out, so directly comparing the two results is difficult.

And it's important to remember that even the lower 62% figure is a better result than the best flu jab, which is about 50% effective.

What is more, no-one who received the Oxford vaccine was hospitalised or became seriously ill due to Covid.

How long does it protect against Covid for?

As with all the vaccines being developed against coronavirus, we don't know yet.

It may be that people need annual vaccinations, as happens with the flu jab.

With the availability of more established Oxford technology, the vaccine is also easier to mass-produce and AstraZeneca has promised not to profit from it during the pandemic.

Cost factors

Pfizer-BioNTech’s product costs around US$20 per dose, Moderna’s is about US$33, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is available at a much cheaper price of around US$4.

The vaccine can be stored, transported and handled for at least six months at 2-8 degrees Celsius.

Pfizer and Moderna have a success rate of around 95 percent.