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WHO Panel OKs AstraZeneca Vaccine Against COVID-19 Variants

A dose of AstraZeneca vaccine is prepared at COVID-19 vaccination center in the Odeon Luxe Cinema in Maidstone, Britain, Feb. 10, 2021.

A World Health Organization panel of immunization experts Wednesday recommended the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine for all ages and in regions where variant strains of the virus are prevalent.

The WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization made the recommendation from agency headquarters in Geneva. The panel reviewed the vaccine this week after South Africa halted its use Sunday in response to a study by a university there that indicated the drug provided only minimal protection from the variant that was first discovered in that country.

The panel made the evaluation at the request of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and for the benefit of health care workers around the world who already are administering the vaccine. But the panel recommendation does not signify official WHO approval of the drug for emergency use, which is expected in about a week.

So far, the WHO has given emergency use authorization only to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, though other countries and regions individually have authorized other vaccines.

WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said, nonetheless, the panel's decision represents an "important milestone" because the AstraZeneca vaccine requires storage at refrigerator temperatures — not the far colder temperatures required for the Pfizer vaccines, making it easier and less expensive to distribute.

The WHO-supported vaccine cooperative COVAX Facility, designed to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are equitably available to all countries, hopes to start shipping hundreds of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine starting later this month.