The problem child of COVID-19 vaccines was back in the news this week. After South Africa suspended the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s use when it failed to slow the spread of the predominant B.1.351 variant, vaccination using this vaccine has been suspended and then resumed in many European countries following reports of blood clots in some people who received it.
According to a release from AstraZeneca, there have been 15 cases of deep vein thrombosis and 22 cases of pulmonary embolism in people who have gotten the vaccine, as of March 8. These are serious complications—seven of those people died. Countries that suspended the vaccine’s use include Spain, Italy, France, and Germany, among others. (Europe tends to act as more of a bloc than North America when it comes to vaccines. Consider: Canada has authorized use of the AstraZeneca vaccine while the US has literal fridges full of the stuff just sitting there waiting for approval.)
Since the initial suspension, investigations have been launched and apparently concluded that there is no causative relationship between the vaccine and these symptoms. According to Emer Cooke, the executive director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), in a press conference on March 18: “The committee… concluded that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of thromboembolic events or blood clots.”
And, according to the WHO on March 17: “At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue.” Europe has since started to resume vaccinating with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, starting with France, Germany, and Italy. (Except not in Finland, where they just suspended it again after two people got similar blood clots.)
So all’s well that ends well right? Well, not necessarily. Besides that Finland wrinkle, some scientists and officials are concerned that this entire rigmarole could undermine public trust in the AstraZeneca vaccine. It’s worth noting that a tiny population experienced these effects out of the millions of people who have already gotten the vaccine. And blood clots are fairly common in the population; you’re going to expect some people to develop them just by sheer chance. But it’s also worth noting that these complications are serious, and rare among the age group that they were reported in. Not slowing down could have the same fear-inducing effect. As Shobita Parthasarathy says in her Slate column, “[T]his crisis isn’t about science at all. It’s about public trust, and scared citizens cannot be easily convinced by expertise that feels remote. Our solutions need to reflect that.”
We’ll see if anything else happens. But in the meantime, the US has since promised to share its stockpile of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine with Canada and Mexico, so it looks like it’s at least medium-steam ahead for now.
More vaccine posts
- Booster shots exacerbate global vaccine inequityAt the end of last week’s post on booster shots, I wrote that these additional doses take up airtime in expert discussions and in the media, distracting from discussions of what it will take to vaccinate the world. But these shots do more harm than just taking over the media cycle. When the U.S. and other wealthy nations decide to give many residents third doses, they jump the vaccine supply line again—leaving low-income nations to wait even longer for first doses.
- Another COVID-19 endgame takeTrevor Bedford, computational virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center—and widely regarded expert on coronavirus variants—wrote a useful Twitter thread this week. In the thread, Bedford provides his take on the “COVID-19 endgame.” In other words, what will happen once the virus reaches endemic levels?
- Unreliable population numbers hinder vaccination rate analysisAn excellent article in the Financial Times, published this past Monday, illuminates one major challenge of estimating a vaccine campaign’s success: population data are not always reliable. Health reporter Oliver Barnes and data reporter John Burn-Murdoch explain that, in several countries and smaller regions, inaccurate counts of how many people live in the region have led to vaccination rate estimates that make the area’s vaccine campaign look more successful—or less successful—than it really is.
- Booster shots: What we’ve learned—and what we still don’t knowThis week, the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee had a two-day meeting to discuss booster shots for Moderna’s and Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccines. From the outside, these meetings may have appeared fairly straightforward: the committee voted unanimously to recommend booster shots for both vaccines. But in fact, the discussions on both days were wide-reaching and full of questions, touching on the many continued gaps in our knowledge about the need for additional vaccine doses.