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South Africa variant's deadly spread highlights risks of unequal COVID "Vaccine Apartheid"

South Africa launches COVID vaccine campaign
South Africa launches COVID vaccine campaign 03:28

Johannesburg, South Africa — A small-scale study suggests the coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa, which has now been found in 10 U.S. states, reduces the antibody protection provided by the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine by about two-thirds. It's the latest worrying data on the newer strains of the virus spreading around the world, but Pfizer has stressed that there's still no clinical evidence its vaccine is less effective against the South African variant.

The study carried out by the University of Texas Medical Branch with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech didn't use real-world clinical data, but tested the vaccine against a lab-created replica of the mutated virus. Scientists have said that even with the significantly reduced antibody response the Pfizer vaccine — and the Moderna formula which uses the same biomedical technology — may still provide sufficient immunity to prevent serious illness. 

Still, Pfizer says it's already working on a booster shot to increase the immune response of its vaccine.

COVID-19 variants' impact, potential spread 03:33

In South Africa, meanwhile, officials are taking a different path to vaccinating the population in the country where the highly-infectious new variant was discovered. As CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports, South Africa has become the first country to approve the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for use, but it has struggled to keep up with richer nations.

Lee McCabe and his family thought they'd done everything possible to protect his parents, and he never imagined he'd begin this year by packing up their belongings — heart-breaking reminders of his loss.

For most of 2020, McCabe kept his elderly parents Winona and Frans safe, even moving them into a separate cottage on his property. But as the rate of new COVID-19 infections across the country dropped, they insisted on moving back into the family home, unaware that the virus had mutated, and the far more contagious strain was spreading like wildfire through their hometown.  

It took his father first, and then his mother only five days later.  

lee-mccabe-parents.jpg
Lee McCabe is seen with his parents in a family photo. Courtesy of Lee McCabe

"Maybe if we didn't let them go home, they'd still be around," McCabe wondered out loud, as tears came to his eyes.

To add to that pain of regret, the first batch of potentially life-saving vaccines, made by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, landed in South Africa just four weeks after his parents died.

"If this arrived a few months earlier, their lives would have been saved," McCabe said. "That makes me angry, because I feel that we have delayed so long in getting much needed help to people that need it."  

To date, South Africa has secured barely enough vaccine doses to cover half of the country's population of just under 60 million people. 

But it's far worse in other developing nations, where United Nation health official Winnie Byanyima says unequal "Vaccine Apartheid" means 9 out of 10 people won't get inoculated this year, and many not until 2023.

Premier Makhura observes vaccination programme at hospitals in South Africa
A nurse waits in the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital ahead of a visit by the state premier to observe the commencement of the COVID-19 vaccination program, which was to focus first inoculating health workers, on February 17, 2021 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sharon Seretlo/Gallo Images/Getty

"The virus is moving faster than global action, our action is too weak," said Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, the UN agency created in response to the pandemic that tore across the world in the 1980s.

Globally unequal distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines will harm all of us, experts warn, by leaving reservoirs across the world for new variants to emerge and spread. It's a price that people in South Africa are already paying, as the strain first discovered here is now the dominant one not only across this country, but also across its borders in other southern African nations.   

"The virus is mutating, we are going to get more dangerous forms of this virus and we will be running behind it slowly as people die," she told CBS News. "We need to move faster by increasing production and vaccinating the world as quickly as possible."

It's not just a problem for developing countries; experts say wealthier nations will bear the brunt of the estimated $9 trillion loss of global income due to vaccination delays in poorer parts of the world.  

Until everyone is safe, sons like Lee McCabe will continue to grieve the loss of parents who, he believed, still had many good years ahead of them to enjoy with their family.

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