MINISTER of Health Dr Jonas Chanda has justified Cabinet’s decision to settle for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine despite its failure in South Africa, saying it has been cleared by the European Medicines Council and is set to be rolled out in Zambia under the free Covax facility.

And Dr Chanda says the country recorded 325 new COVID-19 cases out of 7,646 tests conducted and four deaths in the last 24 hours.

Responding to a question on why government had approved the acquisition of the AstraZeneca vaccine despite the fact that it was deemed ineffective against the new COVID-19 strand in SA, which is the same one currently prevailing in Zambia, Dr Chanda said it was safe.

He argued that the study which was conducted on the said vaccine in SA was very limited.

Chanda said there were two vaccines under the Covax facility; AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson.

“I should mention that under the Covax mechanisms, we have two vaccines that are already there, one is the AstraZeneca vaccine, the other one is the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Those are two under the Covax mechanisms. And I should mention, I know there have been topical issues especially around AstraZeneca, in Europe and other countries with some temporary suspensions but as we know, all our designs are informed by science. The European Medicines agency, the WHO have all certified that AstraZeneca…there were allegations that it leads to clotting but actually those things have been dispelled because I can give an example, in the UK and Europe, 37 million people received Oxford AstraZeneca, only probably seven cases recorded clotting but we also know that coronavirus, one of the manifestations of coronavirus is that it’s thrombolytic, it causes clotting. Even in Zambia without the COVID-19 vaccine, we have had a lot of cases of clotting due to covid-19 and that’s why we are managing our patients, some of them in ICU,” Dr Chanda said.

“Concerning the South African study on AstraZeneca, [it] was a very limited study, it’s a small one. It’s not a huge clinical trial and I think if I am not mistaken it was limited to a small number of young people, not even the vulnerable, where AstraZeneca has been used in the most vulnerable, it has been shown to be very effective. Yes, we are aware of the variants but again WHO…against you know medicine is science, it’s empirical evidence, there is no room for guess work, there is no room for witch craft, we use science. So WHO has guided and all authorities have guided but even where there are variants, when you use these vaccines, the impact is quite huge so these viruses will keep on mutating even tomorrow we may have another variant, and another one because it’s a novel virus. But what is shown even where there are these variants, whether South African variant, the UK variant whatever variant is that when you vaccinate a population, the severity of disease reduces, you cut down on mortality…When the European Medicines Agency and WHO analysed the cases in Europe, they concluded that AstraZeneca is safe, efficacious, actually in the US, there is a clinical trial in the US which just came out a few days ago which shows that AstraZeneca is 79 percent effective in reducing transmission and 100 percent effective in cutting down severe disease which means that you are preventing people getting infected and you are preventing them getting severely ill.”

He insisted that the vaccine was suspended in some European countries as a precaution but it had since been cleared for use.

“When you talk about safety, the major concern that was raised in Europe was about clotting, there has been no evidence, that one you can quote me, the European Medicines Agency, in Europe itself, Germany, France, Italy and others had suspended AstraZeneca, based on the recommendation of the European Medicines agency, WHO they have restarted AstraZeneca…the reason they paused, in medicine, we can always take a precaution, they don’t have to ban, they didn’t outlaw it, it was a precaution based on science and they have been cleared,” he said.

“I wish to assure the nation that all decisions that we are making are informed by science and the vaccination programme that Cabinet has settled for is very good for Zambia. In fact, we should [thank] His Excellency the President because if we had hesitated, like we said, we don’t have a lot of time before the cold season, this is the right time for Zambia to do this and it shall be done in a very transparent manner…I just wish to inform you and through you the nation that His Excellency President Edgar Chagwa Lungu yesterday, on the 24th March 2021 called for the fourth cabinet meeting which was held virtually to mainly deliberate on Zambia’s acquisition, deployment and financing of COVID-19 vaccines. It was a one agenda cabinet meeting on health, acquisition, deployment and financing of COVID-19 vaccines in Zambia.”

Dr Chanda explained that 3,686,791 Zambians were set to benefit from the free Covax facility while the remaining 4,761,327 eligible Zambians would be covered by other mechanisms.

“A total of 3,686,791 Zambians aged above 18 years are earmarked for Covax facility vaccination. Under this WHO supported arrangement. This therefore translates into the coverage of 20 percent of the 46 percent of the eligible population which is 8,438,118 people. The estimated total population for Zambia currently is 18,383,955 people. For the COVID-19 vaccines available, only those above the age of 18 will be vaccinated. And when you look at Zambia, the proportion of the population above the age of 18 which 46 percent. The other 26 percent that is the 4,761,327 will be covered by government and other mechanisms I will outline,” he said.

“Cabinet further approved that in terms of prioritisation for administering of the vaccines, the following will be the priority in Zambia before the vaccination is extended other people: a) frontline health workers, and these are essential in sustaining the COVID-19 response; b) the police, security teachers, traditional leaders, clergy immigration officers as these are taken as the most essential to maintain core society functions; c) marketeers, traders, including bus and truck drivers involved in cross border business in view of the environments in which they work through and ;d) those older than 65 years old including those with chronic illnesses as they are at greatest risk of severe illness and watch, including their caregivers.”

He added that only persons above the age of 18 would be targeted as advised by the World Health Organisation.

Meanwhile, Dr Chanda announced that the country recorded 325 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths in the last 24 hours.

“We recorded 325 new cases out of 7,646 tests conducted (4 percent positivity). This brings the cumulative number of confirmed cases recorded to date to 87,318. The new cases broken down by province are as follows: 129 Lusaka, 60 Eastern, 35 Central, 30 North-western, 27 Muchinga, 11 Luapula, 11 Southern, 10 Copperbelt, 6 Northern, and 6 Western. Of the 325 positive samples, 207 were collected within the last 24-72 hours whereas 118 were older than 72 hours. The provinces with the highest positivity rate was Eastern (14 percent) and Central (14 percent) while Southern (two percent) and Copperbelt (one percent) had the lowest positivity. Four new deaths were recorded from Lusaka (2) and North-western (2) provinces. The cumulative number of COVID-19 related deaths recorded now stands at 1,191, classified as 660 COVID deaths and 531 COVID-19 associated deaths. A combined 278 discharges were recorded from both the COVID-19 isolation facilities and home management, bringing the cumulative number of recoveries to 83,895 (96 percent),” said Dr Chanda.

“We currently have 2,232 active cases, of whom 2,119 (95 percent) are under community management and 113 (five percent) are admitted to our COVID-19 isolation facilities. Among those admitted, 88 (78 percent) are on Oxygen therapy and 23 (20 percent) are in critical condition. We have noticed a concerning trend of a few patients leaving the hospital against medical advice and returning to the facilities shortly thereafter in even worse condition. Unfortunately, these have been among the patients we have lost to COVID-19 while others have gone on to develop severe and debilitating disease. We therefore continue to urge all those individuals who test positive and are symptomatic to seek medical care early and once admitted, to follow the guidance given by health care workers and only leave the facility once they have been discharged.”