The recommendation may encourage more countries to use the vaccine broadly, after some European Union countries advised against giving it to the elderly, citing insufficient trial data involving older people.
The shot’s effect in older people is expected to be the same as for younger recipients, said Alejandro Cravioto, chairman of the WHO panel, in a briefing.
The move is good news for developing countries, many of which are waiting to administer their first shots as wealthier countries have already inoculated millions of residents. AstraZeneca, which developed the vaccine with the University of Oxford, has pledged significant supplies to Covax, a facility that aims to distribute vaccines equitably around the world.
The WHO’s recommendation on the Astra shot follows the organization’s decision to clear a vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE in December. The UK drugmaker’s shot is easier to deploy than other vaccines like Pfizer’s that need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, and costs less.
As mutated virus strains spread across the globe, concern has grown that they’ll impact vaccine efficacy. South Africa, where one of the variants was first identified late last year, said it would pause a rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccine after a trial showed it had limited efficacy against mild infections with the strain. AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said the shot should still protect against severe disease, and WHO officials underlined the benefits of continuing to use the vaccine even in variant-hit areas.
“We made the recommendation that even if there is a reduction in possibility of this vaccine having a full impact in its protection capacity, there’s no reason not to recommend its use, even in countries that have the circulation of variants,” Cravioto said.
Covax said last month that it’s on track to deliver at least 2 billion doses -- about two-thirds of which will go to lower-income economies -- and to vaccinate at least a fifth of each participating country’s population by year’s end.
The WHO’s emergency use authorization is needed for Covax to send the vaccines to participating countries, in order to ensure a product’s safety and efficacy for countries that might not have the resources to make the assessments themselves. Individual countries can still make their own decisions on the use of shots.
AstraZeneca shares traded 0.9% lower in London.