The Science Behind the Coronavirus, Series IV: Variants and Vaccines

In the fourth installment of the Los Angeles Times series “The Science Behind Coronavirus,” Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the executive chairman of the Los Angeles Times, discusses South Africa’s recent decision to halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus vaccine — and what it means for efforts to contain new strains of the virus.

Dr. Soon-Shiong’s guest is Shabir Madhi, lead investigator in South Africa’s clinical trials of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. Madhi’s research found that the vaccine, promising against the earlier form of the virus, did not prevent mild to moderate cases of the variant now dominant in that country. The million doses of the vaccine were going to be administered to South African healthcare workers as the first phase of a broad vaccination plan. The pause comes as the country battles a new, highly contagious strain of the virus. South Africa has seen nearly 1.5 million cases of the virus as of mid-February, and more than 47,000 people in that country have died.

Professor Shabir Madhi is the dean of faculty of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and director of the university’s Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit. He is also co-director of the African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise, a program dedicated to increasing vaccine research activity in Africa.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is a surgeon and scientist who has spent his career studying the human immune system to fight cancer and infectious disease. Last year, Soon-Shiong’s company, ImmunityBio, received permission from the Food and Drug Administration to begin Phase 1 trials of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. He has also received approval to begin trials in South Africa, where he will explore the potential of his T cell vaccine to prevent infection from mutated virus strains of the coronavirus.