International 17/03/2021

Current data do not support suspension of vaccination with AstraZeneca

Boris Johnson comes out in defence of the vaccine and claims he will get the jab "very soon"

4 min
Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine dose.

LondonThe data used by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) suggest that in reality the cases of thrombi that have alerted Europe and have paralysed the AstraZaneca vaccination campaign in at least 17 countries around the world, turning the immunisation process into a real chaos, are fewer than could be expected without the vaccine.

In the UK and the EU, approximately 17m people have received the Oxford product, and 37 episodes have been counted, some fatal, according to information provided by the pharmaceutical company on its website. In addition to these, this morning Spain reported that it is investigating the death by stroke of a 43-year-old woman in Marbella who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month and is also analysing another case of abdominal venous thrombosis.

EMA director Emer Cooke explained yesterday that "when you vaccinate millions of people it is inevitable that there are incidents. The role of the EMA is to evaluate them to see if they are really side effects or coincidences." In other words, the controls work. And both the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, also said hours later that they hope to "quickly restart the administration of AstraZeneca's vaccine", as soon as the EU regulator gives even more guarantees of safety and disassociates the problems mentioned from its administration, which it may do in the announcement scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday.

So are there scientific reasons for stopping vaccination or has there simply been too much running around, especially since Germany decided on Monday to stop the Oxford team's vaccine campaign?

The director of the Italian Agency for the Safety of Medicines (AIFA), Nicola Magrini, said on Tuesday in an interview with the newspaper La Repubblica that the decision by Germany, France and Italy to suspend AstraZeneca after the first reports of possible thrombi was "political". "We reached the point of a suspension because several European countries, including Germany and France, preferred to interrupt vaccination, to put it on hold for further controls. The decision is political." In Italy there have been, according to Magrini, eight deaths and four cases of serious side effects after the vaccines had been administered.

But in the same interview he added that the benefit-risk ratio of the vaccine is "largely positive", basically the same as the EMA has said in the past few hours

The version given by Dr. Magrini makes us think more of a domino effect, motivated by prudence, or even by an excess of prudence, than in a plan directed by the European Commission to damage the image of AstraZeneca, as a lesson or revenge for its delivery problems in the EU. In this sense, hours after Germany, France and Italy joined other countries' veto, Spain did too.

And despite the fact that there is no data to corroborate the relationship between vascular problems and the vaccine, and that everything indicates that AstraZeneca is safe, it is still significant that the Food and Drug Administration, the US regulator, has not yet given the green light to the product of the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company, and that this approval is still months behind the approval of the British and European regulator.

British response

In the United Kingdom, the European country that first used AstraZeneca, and where the vaccine has been developed, the decisions of the European and other governments, but especially the European ones, have caused surprise as well as a scientific and political offence. Two ministers, the Minister of Business and the Minister of Health, have come out today to defend the vaccine. And Boris Johnson, during PMQs, claimed that "very soon" it will be his turn to be immunised and that he will "doubtellsly" do so with the Oxford vaccine.

Scientists have joined him. This Wednesday the former director of the MHRA Kent Woods said on BBC Breakfast: "We must not forget that in the European Union the latest figures show that there are about 2,000 deaths a day due to covid. This is a very serious pandemic. And I think that an interruption in the vaccination of their populations is a very regrettable development. And given that there have been difficulties with supply in some parts of Europe, given that there's been this new confusion with the suspension of the vaccine programme, it's not doing anything for the health of the population. And while it's tempting to say that the regulators in these countries are being safe, I think they're doing the opposite. I think they actually increase the risk to the population in the face of a very significant pandemic."

Meanwhile, Professor Jeremy Brown, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, that the suspension in 17 EU countries "is not sensible", "nor logical". In addition, he argued an indeniable fact. All the controversy generated will increase the suspicion of the general public about the possible resumption of the campaign with AstraZeneca's vaccine. It is also a propaganda battle.

"There is concern that what is happening in Europe may make people in the UK less confident in the AstraZeneca vaccine, unnecessarily, because it is perfectly safe." The vaccine has been given to around 11 million people in the UK "and there have been no serious side effects," he added. "It's hard to understand why so many countries have decided to stop using the vaccine."

Brown's words are not gratuitous. A YouGov survey conducted between 23 February and 2 March in five countries - the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany and France - showed that while in the first (UK) confidence in the Oxford/AstraZeneca injection is at its highest (95%), the belief that it is unsafe rises to 44% (France) and 40% (Germany). In Italy, 16% consider it unsafe and in Spain 25%. These figures must probably have grown after the latest information.

In this regard, in Germany, one of the countries with the highest anti-vaccine index, a Forsa flash poll released today for RTL and NTV shows that 54% of respondents believe that the suspension of AstraZeneca vaccination is correct.