By Joe Rossiter
This week, countries across Europe including Italy, France, Germany and Spain halted the rollout of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, citing cases of blood clots in those vaccinated with it. Some recalled certain batches while others paused the administration of all AstraZeneca doses until further notice. The company responded to this with a statement released on 14th March, claiming that safety data available from 17 million vaccinated people in the EU and UK showed fewer than 40 incidents of blood clots, “much lower” than would be expected to occur naturally.
Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said that the decision to suspend the use of AstraZeneca’s jab was a “professional” decision and “not political”, although the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has said that it should continue to be used.
These events naturally raise questions over the real motivation for withholding AstraZeneca’s jab specifically, given that levels of blood clotting have been similar in those given Pfizer’s vaccine. Whatever the truth of the situation, these events are having a real impact on confidence in vaccines across Europe.
There have been reports in Germany, for example, of empty vaccination centres and unused supplies as people hesitate: they cannot choose which jab they receive. This follows a sequence of blunders that undermined the AstraZeneca vaccine, including Emmanuel Macron calling it “quasi-ineffective” in over-65s and some countries initially withholding it from this age group.
YouGov found in March that a majority of the UK population had confidence in both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, with 79% believing the former to be safe compared to 81% for the latter. Looking across Europe however, there is a much greater disparity between the two. In France, for example, the proportion of those who say the Pfizer vaccine is safe is 49%, compared to just 33% for AstraZeneca’s jab. What is starker, however, is the proportion who believe each to be unsafe: 29% for Pfizer but 43% for AstraZeneca, still higher than those who believe it to be safe.
These figures make clear that European countries have relatively low levels of confidence in the vaccines and that policy choices affecting the AstraZeneca doses have seriously harmed trust. When people cannot choose which vaccine they are given, this affects the entire inoculation programme.
Using AstraZeneca’s data, it is clear that fewer cases of blood clotting exist after the administration of their vaccine than would normally occur naturally. In context, the extent of this problem so far is minor in comparison to the rising case numbers of coronavirus being experienced across Europe.
Ultimately, governments must make a choice between the risk of adverse side effects from vaccines, shown to be minimal in the available data, and cultivating immunity to coronavirus. Each day, more lives are being lost and the vaccination effort in the UK is demonstrating its potential for managing the pandemic. For the European countries currently withholding vaccine doses from their citizens, they can only realistically lose.
The evidence given by AstraZeneca, as well as the assurances currently being made by both the EMA and the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggest that eventually, the vaccine will be found, once again, to be safe. When this happens, however, current polling suggests uptake of the opportunity could be severely impacted, already hampered by unjustified initial worry about the over-65s.
It is not just these governments that will end up worse off, though. Every unvaccinated person could eventually become a coronavirus case, hospitalisation and death with the potential to spread the virus further and prolong the pandemic. This impacts individuals and families, the communities around them dealing with continued restrictions and the global effort to beat coronavirus through the skills and expertise of those who designed these ground-breaking technologies. The halting of the AstraZeneca coronavirus jabs may be claimed to originate from an abundance of caution, but it is the consequences of this action, not the vaccine’s supposed side effects, that constitute the real threat.
Image: HaticeEROL via Pixabay.